How to Use the CTA Rail System

This article describes how to use CTA's rapid transit system, known locally in Chicago as "The 'L'."


  1. Image titled Use the CTA Rail System Step 1
    Plan your trip. Each of CTA's lines operate frequent service through most of the day, every day (with a couple of exceptions). To find your way: Simply determine where you may enter the system, where you need to go, and follow the most direct, colored route on the map. Trains are designated by line color and its final destination (i.e., Blue Line train to O'Hare, Brown Line train to Kimball, Pink Line train to the Loop).

    If you have to transfer from one line to another, do so at a designated transfer station--it's free!

  2. Image titled Use the CTA Rail System Step 2
    Pay your fare. Fares on the 'L' are paid with electronic farecards. You can buy or refill a Transit Card at any 'L' station's main entry. To enter, simply insert your card into the slot on the turnstile, remove it when it's given back to you, and walk through when the green "ENTER" light goes on. Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus holders only need to wave their card past the circle on the front of the turnstile as they enter.
    • Be aware that the CTA will soon be replacing the magnetic stripe cards you insert into a slot with Ventra cards, which are read via NFC. Simply touch your card to the large plastic square with "Ventra" printed on it and hold it in place until the light goes green and a tone plays.
  3. Image titled Use the CTA Rail System Step 3
    Find your way. Follow signs directing you to trains heading in the direction you wish to go. For example, if you are downtown and need to go north on the Red Line, follow signs to trains going to "Howard" (the northern terminal of the Red Line).
  4. Image titled Use the CTA Rail System Step 4
    Board your train. Trains will show their destination on the front and sides of the train (center window). At transfer points, the recorded announcements also announce what kind of train it is audibly ("This is a Red Line train to Howard").
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    Follow the signs, if you are transferring. At designated transfer points, you may transfer for free between trains. Simply follow signs on platforms to the line and train destination you need. If you must exit the system and walk to a nearby station as part of a transfer, no money will be deducted from your farecard when you use it to re-enter (the system recognizes you as a free transferee).


  • Keep your farecard with you while you travel, even if it's empty--some transfer points require the use of a farecard, in the event you must exit the "paid area" and walk to a nearby station as part of the transfer (such as State/Lake and Jackson-Library when going between subway and elevated lines).
  • Many stations provide parking. This is indicated on maps with a capital "P" in a box next to the station name.
  • Know the 'L' system.
    There are eight rail routes operating, each one designated with a different color name.
    • Red Line: Runs north (to Howard) and south (to 95th) through downtown via the State Street Subway (most of it is elevated or in an open-cut expressway median, however). Service is provided at all times.
    • Blue Line: Runs west and northwest from downtown out to either Forest Park or Chicago-O'Hare International Airport (the O'Hare branch terminates in a subway station inside the actual airport), and uses the Milwaukee-Dearborn Subway through downtown. During weekday rush hours, some trains operate to/from 54/Cermak, which is served at most other hours exclusively by the Pink Line. Service at all times.
    • Green Line: Runs west and south from downtown via Lake Street 'L', the north and east legs of the downtown elevated Loop, and the South Side 'L'. Operates early morning through late evening (no Owl Service).
    • Brown Line: Runs north-northwest via elevated from downtown, operating counterclockwise around the downtown Loop 'L'. Operates early morning through late evening (no Owl Service).
    • Orange Line: Runs southwest from Loop 'L' (clockwise) to Chicago-Midway International Airport via elevated. Operates early morning through late evening (no Owl Service).
    • Purple Line: Runs between Howard and Linden (in Wilmette) as a shuttle train making several stops through Evanston. Additional service to downtown Loop 'L' (clockwise) via Express during weekday rush periods only. Operates early morning through late evening (no Owl Service).
    • Pink Line: Operates west from downtown Loop 'L' (clockwise) via Lake Street 'L' and Douglas Park 'L', early morning through late evening (no Owl Service), every day.
    • Yellow Line: Skokie Swift. Operates as shuttle train between Howard and suburban Skokie (Dempster St.) stations, weekdays only, roughly morning through evening hours (no late evening or Owl Service). No intermediate stops are made.
  • Many stations are wheelchair accessible. Full ADA accessibility is indicated by the universal "accessible" logo printed on maps next to the station name.
  • Many stations provide indoor bicycle racks for added security. This is indicated by a bicycle logo on printed system maps.
  • Some of CTA's 'L' stations are not elevated, but are actually in a subway. CTA's subways function no differently than the 'L'--they're just in tunnels rather than on elevated structures.


  • Rail station vending machines do not give change. Come prepared with cash or coins with which to add value to Transit Cards in an amount you're comfortable with.
  • Do not run for a train. Chances are another one just like it is only a few minutes away.
  • Do not hold the doors or attempt to open them once they're closing--train doors are not like elevator doors, and do not reopen completely when an object is in the way (they only bounce back slightly and reattempt to close). If an object is left on a train, notify CTA personnel immediately and they'll radio for the rail operator to check the train for it.
  • Do not cross from car to car, even while the train is stopped. It can be dangerous and is illegal.
  • Stand away from the platform edge even when a train is not approaching. At track level, there is a high-voltage, electrified rail that powers the trains, in addition to the dangers presented by heavy, moving trains. It is also known as the third rail.
  • Do not lean against the doors. Not only can it be hazardous, you may trigger the door's sensors to notify the operator to stop the train, causing delays.
  • Buses no longer issue transfers. If starting your trip on a bus, be sure to buy a farecard in advance at any of CTA's 144 rail stations, or hundreds of retail outlets such as Currency Exchanges, drug stores, or supermarkets.
  • Do not leave your belongings unattended. This may either encourage theft or be seen with suspicion and possibly cause everyone delays.
  • Hold onto your children while moving through stations, turnstiles, and while waiting on the platform. Stand as far from platform edges as possible when waiting with children.
  • Some older train cars on the Blue and Pink lines have doors and interior layouts that are incompatible with bicycles and wheelchairs. If using those lines, be prepared to move to another car if one of these pulls up (they have narrow sets of doors that swing inward, rather than wide, sliding pocket doors).

Things You'll Need

  • Fare. Base fare is $2.25 and an additional $0.25 is charged if you pay again to board a bus or enter a rail station. You can add money to stored-value farecards at any rail station, but the machines do not give change. If you add $20, fares are deducted from the card as you go.

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Categories: Public Transport