photo: Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune
CTA trains may be suffering from derailings and fires lately, but that isn't stopping the city from making headway on its technology.
For those who want to spend as little time at train stops as possible, the CTA's updated Train Tracker is a great new tool. Released last Wednesday (and in continuous use on my phone ever since), it's actually quite accurate at calculating estimated arrival times.
The cell phone-compatible website allows you to manually pick a stop from drop-down menus divided by train lines. In most cases, it's best to use the "Stops Near Me" function, which locates the stops closest to you by GPS and provides you the ETAs from both directions for those stops. Once you become more acquainted with the site, you can quickly choose "favorited" or recent stops to skip the station locating step altogether.
Once you're looking at the ETAs for a stop, you can also set up the site to refresh ETAs automatically by hitting the "Options" tab. While this feature increases wireless data use, it can be a real life-saver if it's particularly cold or hot outside. So, in Chicago, always.
Based on my use of the site from my iPhone this past weekend, I was pleasantly surprised by its efficiency. I used the "Stops Near Me" feature for every stop between Noyes on the Purple Line to Belmont on the Red Line, and it worked like a charm. When the site stated a train was due, my train reached the station within less than half a minute.
Another cool feature is the "Train Tracker Map," which allows you to see the actual progress and directions of all CTA trains. But given that the site is currently in its beta stage, the map lags quite a bit when you try to zoom up or down or pin down train locations on specific lines. At the moment, it's more gimmicky than useful.
Another potential caveat to using this site on your phone: It's hard for the site to use your cell's GPS at underground tunnel stops on the Red and Blue lines, where we all know that cell phone signals are spotty at best.
According to RedEye, the CTA is working to improve reception down there. Until then, you'll be better off checking your train's ETA before you go under. Or you could just head down the stairs and do it the old-fashioned way: Look for the light at the end of the tunnel.