Chicago’s commuter and main-line
rail passenger routes, 2001

compiled by Ian Umpleby and Richard Maund.

This page was originally uploaded on 3 February 2002. Minor corrections have been made subsequently - latest amendment 22 July 2006 but it still only purports to represent the situation as found in 2001 and may not reflect current operations.


1] Nothing in the following 40 paragraphs can really give any feel for the overwhelming size and complexity of the railway infrastructure around the ‘Windy City’. Much of the network is heavily used for freight, as will constantly be seen when travelling on passenger trains. Good-quality maps and much preparation are essential to make sense of what you will see.

Sources

2] Two volumes of SPV’s Comprehensive Railroad Atlas of North America (SPV, Faversham, Kent, UK; 1996 and 1997), ‘Great Lakes West’ and ‘Great Lakes East’, cover the area in detail, including freight-only and closed lines.

3] The following documents are also commended to potential travellers. Many are dated, but they are important for any serious study of the railways of ‘Chicagoland’.

3.1] Chicago’s Commuter Railroads: A Guide to the Metra System (Richard Kunz; Andover Junction Publications, Andover, NJ; 1992) comprises a historical introduction and a description of the 1992 system, with line-by-line details, which remains useful.

3.2] Overhead and Underground: A Guide to Chicago’s Rapid Transit (Richard Kunz; Andover Junction Publications, Andover, NJ; not dated) likewise comprises a historical introduction and a description of the [1991] system. Alas, the line colours are out of date but the book includes useful detailed track plans for all Chicago Transit Authority lines.

3.3] Passenger Train Journal for July, August and September 1985 included a useful three-part article, with an invaluable map in the August isssue explaining how pre-Amtrak long-distance passenger trains made their way through the tangle of Chicagoland’s extensive rail network.

3.4] Trains magazine for July 1993 carried an article with a useful overview plan of Chicagoland’s railroads, highlighting Amtrak and Metra passenger routes.

3.5] Trains for July 2003 was a special issue on Chicago, containing two useful maps: ‘Chicago Railroads, 1928: How the passenger trains reached the Loop’ and ‘Chicago Main Line Freight Routes, April 2003’, a schematic track-layout plan excluding passenger-only lines.

3.6] Chicago Union Station - A Look at Its History and Operations Before Amtrak, by Edward M DeRouin, published 2003 by Pixels Publishing, Elmhurst, IL, is of interest.

4] The following may also be helpful:

4.1] The Official Railfan Guide: Chicago 2000 (RAILChicago Publishing, 2000) is a compendium of plans, mileages and other material drawn from the Chicago-area railroads’ employee timetables, including the passenger railroads.

4.2] Train Watcher’s Guide to Chicago (John Szwajkart; John Szwajkart, Chicago; latest edition 1987) gives sketches of locations for train-watching. The schematic track-plans of some of the more elaborate junctions are useful.

4.3] Wikimedia Commons - individual schematic plans of the routes used to reach the Chicago terminals - past and present: Central station; Dearborn station; Grand Central station; La Salle Street station; Ogilvie Transportation Center (former North Western terminal); Union station (pre-Amtrak); Union station (current).

The operators

5] The Regional Transportation Authority (formerly Northeastern Illinois Regional Transportation Authority, initially formed in 1974) have general oversight of all public transport in the region of the six Illinois counties of Cook, Lake, Du Page, Will, McHenry and Kane, and produce useful multi-modal maps, but the RTA do not actually run any transport operations themselves.

6] Rail passenger services in the Chicago area are provided by four entities, all of them in the public sector.

6.1] Amtrak is the brand-name of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, wholly owned by the US federal government, who since 1 May 1971 have run all long-distance passenger trains into and out of Chicago.

6.2] Metra is also a brand-name (rather than an acronym) and is the trading name of Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter Rail Corporation, who provide heavy-rail commuter services on a system of c.860 route-km. Metra contract with the major freight railroads to provide some Metra-branded passenger services, but they are also a railroad in their own right, owning infrastructure and running trains, for example on lines of companies that went into liquidation (Milwaukee and Rock Island); over the former Illinois Central’s electrified system; and over ex-Wisconsin Central, now Canadian National, tracks. Routes directly operated by Metra are indicated in the individual items below.

6.3] Chicago South Shore & South Bend Railroad have from 1989 been owned by the private-sector Anacostia & Pacific Co Inc, who operate freight trains as ‘South Shore Freight’. Passenger trains however are operated, as South Shore Line, jointly by Metra (for the state of Illinois) and by Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (for the state of Indiana). NICTD, pronounced Nick-Tee, handle all the marketing for South Shore Line.

6.4] Chicago Transit Authority have, since 1947, run the urban rail (= subway or metro) services in the city, including the famous ‘L’ (for elevated. The form ‘El’ is not used in Chicago).

Overview of Metra services and terminals

7] Metra services radiate from four termini in Chicago, and most are identified by the name of the former or present company owning the track. Details can be viewed on Metra’s excellent website http://www.metrarail.com/. Another useful website is http://www.hometown.aol.com/chirailfan/. Virtually all Metra trains start or finish their journeys in Chicago, and each line has an intensive rush-hour service to and from the city unless otherwise indicated in the following paragraphs. Each line has its own pocket timetable. Only the lines out of the Randolph Street terminus are electrified (1500V dc overhead), having been so converted in 1926. The Metra Electric lines use electric multiple-units. The South Shore line uses electric multiple-units of which 50 belong to NICTD and eight belong to Metra, reflecting their interest in the Illinois section, including Hegewisch station which accounts for nearly a quarter of the line’s commuter traffic. Push-pull bi-level train-sets worked by diesel locomotives operate all the other lines. The 1000+ coaches have an average age of 27 years, and 300 new state-financed bi-level vehicles are on order for delivery in 2003-2005, some of them to be used for further expansion of services. From 15 December 2001 Metra have tracked the location of their trains using global-positioning-satellite equipment.

8] A zonal-fare system focused on the city-centre uses zone-letters on the main Metra routes and zone-numbers on the South Shore Line. Chicago - Harvard in Zone M is the longest Metra journey, at a one-way fare of USD6.60 for 117km. Chicago - South Bend Airport is the longest journey on the whole network, at a fare of USD9.40 for 141km. The network's best bargain is a USD5 weekend pass giving unlimited travel on Metra services (not to South Bend) from the start of Saturday to the end of Sunday, the period being extended without increase in fare to three days when a public holiday adjoins the weekend. Though not all lines operate at weekends, careful planning can give large savings. Generally a weekend pass combined with ordinary one-way tickets will be the most economical way of doing a return trip over each line to cover the network. Ten-ride zonal tickets at 15% reduction may be of use in some circumstances, but monthly passes (commencing only on the 1st of the calendar month) are unlikely to be attractive to the casual visitor at fares like USD178.20 for Zone M.

9] Ticket-vending machines and automatic gates exist only on the Randolph Street services. Metra ticket-clerks at stations sell numbered tear-off paper tickets, c.65mm x 90mm, pre-printed with the starting-zone in small print and the destination-zone in bold letters 25mm tall, rubber-stamped by the clerk with the date of issue, and having a validity of one year. Each ticket may be used for a one-way trip in either direction, so two such tickets can be used for a round-trip. Weekend tickets issued at stations are similar-size paper ticket-stock, pre-printed with the month and year at the top and the month's Saturday and Sunday dates at the bottom. The ticket-clerk punches the appropriate dates upon issue. Conductors on board likewise issue folded paper tickets, punching out the date and the fare, and retaining a duplicate, presumably for (labour-intensive) manual audit and market-analysis. In each case, the passenger once on the train has to leave his ticket on display in a clip above his seat, enabling the conductor to check whether he is travelling beyond the zone paid for.

Chicago Union Station

10] As well as being terminus for six Metra lines, Union Station is a major hub for Amtrak’s long-distance services. The Chicago Union Station company was formerly owned jointly by the pre-Amtrak passenger railroads using the station, but it is now an Amtrak subsidiary. Most of the station is now hidden underground, following the 1969 demolition of the above-ground station concourse on the east side of Canal Street, and is bounded by Canal, Van Buren and Madison Streets and the South Branch of the Chicago River, but parts remain of the original 1925 station head-house on the west side of Canal Street, including the façade with its stone columns. The various entrances provide access to a central area with all the normal big-station facilities, and to north and south concourses. http://www.hometown.aol.com/chirailfan/tstcus.html has a link to a simplified sketch of the layout. The north-facing terminal tracks have the odd numbers 1-19 and the south-facing terminal tracks the even numbers 2-28. In each case, Amtrak seems to use the higher-numbered tracks, Metra the lower ones. On the east side, track 19 at the north end continues past a convex-curved unnumbered platform face (known as ‘the 25 pocket’) past the intervening area of the station’s passenger facilities to become track 28 at the south end. Two freight-transfer tracks run through the station area on the river side, numbered 7 and 9 (these are part of the numerical sequence of the running lines approaching the station at either end, not the terminal track numbering sequence). Additional tracks and platforms on the south side were for mail/parcels work. Freight transfer track 7 has a crossover at the north end into the 25 pocket, and itself has an un-numbered non-passenger platform face opposite the 25 pocket. Amtrak’s Chicago - Seattle, WA /Portland, OR Empire Builder was observed using the through platform (track 19 - the 25 pocket - track 28), but no Metra trains are scheduled to do so, although a morning commuter train was seen terminating by the central area. On 17 June 2001 Amtrak’s Chicago - New Orleans, LA City of New Orleans departed southbound from track 19 via the through line and track 28, with no suggestion that this was an unusual movement. Amtrak’s Chicago - Milwaukee, WI trains also leave from platform 19, heading north.

11] Chicago Union Station company own the railway between the west side of Canal Street (just beyond Lake Street Tower at the north end) to the south side of the 1914 alignment of Roosevelt Road (which is near the wye at the south end) and effectively control it from Western Avenue Tower (= signal-box) A2 through Union station to 21st Street Tower. Western Avenue Tower A2 is at the flat crossing with UP lines serving Ogilvie Transportation Center and the end-on junction with Metra’s Milwaukee District. The north end of Union station is controlled by Lake Street tower, visible from the eponymous street. (Note that a different Lake Street Tower controls access to the ex-North Western, now UP, Ogilvie Transportation Center.) At the south end, beyond the platforms, are five main running lines (1 and 2 on the west are BNSF-owned, for Metra trains, while 3,4 and 5 on the east are Amtrak’s) controlled from Lumber Street, on the river side of the layout almost opposite the north junction of the Canal Street wye, but hidden behind Amtrak’s Mid West Maintenance Facility. The BNSF Metra passenger-car yard and servicing facility is on the west side of the layout here. A branch here, Amtrak’s Canal Street wye, has a triangular junction used by arriving trains that are booked to propel into the south end of the station and this branch also gives access to BNSF’s line to the west . The north arm of the wye and the BNSF tracks 1 and 2 run parallel to Union Avenue interlocking, by Metra’s Halsted Street station. To the west, tracks 1 and 2 plus the two tracks from the Canal Street wye become a four-track BNSF line, into which the St.Charles Airline makes a trailing connection. The BNSF line is controlled (very!) remotely, from Fort Worth, TX.

12] Beyond the Amtrak maintenance facility, the diesel shop and the south arm of the wye, the main line reduces to double and crosses the South Branch of the Chicago River on a lift bridge. This bridge and the flat crossing and junction (sometimes known as Alton Jn) with the ex-Illinois Central, now Canadian National, line from South Wye Jn via 16th Street are controlled by Amtrak’s 21st Street Tower. Beyond the crossing, the ex-Pennsylvania, later Conrail, now Norfolk Southern, line to the south (which also gives access to Metra’s South West Service route) is controlled by NS from Dearborn, MI, while the east-west CN line itself is controlled from Homewood, IL.

Chicago Ogilvie Transportation Center

13] By walking up the length of Union Station’s north-facing platforms, and using the north entrance opened by Metra in 1990 to reach Madison Street, one can reach the nearby Ogilvie Transportation Center, Metra’s other main terminus, serving three lines. Formerly known as the North Western or Madison Street Station, this north-facing terminus was rebuilt in the late 1980s and later renamed after a pro-transit Illinois state governor. The Metra Trains Stations plan and certain nameplates about the building give it its full title, Richard B.Ogilvie Transportation Center, but Mr Ogilvie’s forenames are usually omitted. The front of OTC station now comprises an office-block incorporating an airy concourse on two levels with platform access on the upper level. Part of the food court here opens at 05:30.

Chicago La Salle Street Station and Randolph Street Station

14] The other two termini still active, La Salle Street and Randolph Street, are dealt with as part of the relevant line descriptions, below.

Metra passenger rail services line by line

15] Chicago OTC - Wilmette - North Chicago - Waukegan, IL - Kenosha, WI: The Union Pacific North Line running from Chicago Ogilvie Transportation Center northwards parallel to, though rarely in view of, Lake Michigan serves some of Chicago's more exclusive suburbs before reaching Waukegan, where the basic service ends (hourly Mon-Fri, two-hourly at weekends). On the east side of the line from Wilmette to North Chicago it parallels the abandoned trackbed of the North Shore interurban, now the Green Bay Trail from Kenilworth northwards. Occasional stumps of North Shore platform supports can be seen. The junction at Lake Bluff of the Mundelein branch (including a bridge under the UP) is quite distinct. Beyond Waukegan, the northerly extension to Kenosha, the only Metra line to penetrate Wisconsin, sees a rather fragmented service that makes a round-trip from Chicago inconvenient except on Sundays. Nevertheless, on Monday 18 June 2001 one of our reporters successfully made the round-trip Chicago 12:35 - 14:15 Kenosha 14:49 - 16:25 Chicago, and managed 11/2 round-trips on Kenosha’s tramway. His alternative would have been to return Kenosha 17:51 - 19:27 Chicago. From Kenosha station-front buses to Milwaukee connect with most trains.

16] Not run by Metra, and included in this description of Chicagoland railroads only because it may be of interest to track-travellers on the Union Pacific North Line, is the tramway connecting Kenosha station with the town and harbour. Kenosha Transit Electric Streetcars (opened June 2000, flat fare USD0.25; R.0653, 0744) run 11:05-19:05 Mon-Fri and 10:05-17:35 weekends, though Sunday operation is summer-only (27 May to 2 September in 2001). Cars run every 15min, taking about 8min for the circular (anti-clockwise only) trip. They wait time and connect with town bus services at Transit Center, the stop before the railway station.

17] Chicago OTC - Arlington Park - Barrington - Crystal Lake - Harvard, IL: The Union Pacific Northwest Line has three tracks west to Barrington and two beyond to Harvard. Trains run from OTC to Crystal Lake hourly Mon-Fri with infrequent off-peak service beyond to Harvard. Weekend service is every 2-3 hours Chicago - Harvard. Once clear of the closely-spaced inner-suburban stations the line serves the famous Arlington Race Track and assumes a rural nature, punctuated by widely spread towns. The single-track Crystal Lake Jn - McHenry, IL branch leaves the main line just east of Crystal Lake station, but serves that locality at Pingree Road station which is short of the junction and was opened 4 September 2005). McHenry has little weekend service, a sole Saturdays-only working each way, and a return trip is difficult without an overnight stop. The only round-trip possible involves the 05:55 Mon-Fri outward train from Chicago returning on the same set at 07:36, the last train back to the city! A McHenry - Fox Lake Metra bus connects out of the 05:55, but the buses stop running before the evening rush-hour arrivals. The May 2001 edition of Metra’s passenger newsletter, On the (Bi)Level, reported that a new USD3.8M station was due to open in June 2001 at Palatine, presumably replacing the existing station.

18] Chicago OTC - River Forest - Elmhurst - West Chicago - Geneva, IL (- Elburn, IL): The Union Pacific West Line due west from OTC is served hourly Mon-Fri except for a couple of midday trains which terminate short at West Chicago. Saturday service is two-hourly but only five trains on Sunday go the full distance. On the section between Glen Ellyn and Wheaton, the line is paralleled on its south side by the old formation of the Chicago Aurora & Elgin, a long-vanished electric interurban line, now a cycleway. A CAE overbridge is extant just west of Wheaton station. The line is a major freight route to the west and apart from double track between River Forest and Elmhurst is a three-track line until just short of Geneva, on the Fox River. Metra plan to extend the service 13km west to Elburn.

19] Chicago Union - Glenview - Lake Forest - Rondout - Prairie Crossing - Grayslake - Fox Lake, IL: Metra-run Milwaukee District North Line trains from Union Station run hourly Mon-Fri to Grayslake and two-hourly, daily, on to Fox Lake. They shared the whole of their route with Amtrak’s Saturdays-only Chicago - Janesville Lake Country Limited (R.1446) until its last run on 22 September 2001, and they continue to share with Amtrak's Chicago - Milwaukee trains the first 51km north of Chicago to Rondout Tower. Amtrak trains call at Glenview (28km out). West of Rondout, Metra is the sole passenger user of the mostly single-track branch. With one platform and a few carriage sidings, Fox Lake station is close to the main street of the town, which is at the centre of a chain of large scenic lakes in flat country. Beyond, the railway now belongs to Wisconsin & Southern.

20] Chicago Union - River Grove - Franklin Park - O'Hare Transfer - Deval - Prairie Crossing/Libertyville - Antioch, IL: Metra-run North Central Service, largely on ex-Wisconsin Central, now Canadian National trackage, comprises five trains each way Mon-Fri, to be augmented when new coaches are delivered. Diverging from the Milwaukee District West Line at a junction 1km east of Franklin Park station, the branch is single with long passing-loops. Though infrequent, the service provides a quick way to catch a flight: Union station to O’Hare Transfer station, a car-park shuttle-bus, then the Airport Transit System people-mover to international check-in at O’Hare airport takes c.50min. In August 2001 double-tracking was taking place from north of Deval Tower to Prospect Heights, where a new northbound platform was nearing completion. The platform is mid-section on the single track and at the time of our reporter’s visit the train had to head onwards to the next loop to let two freights through. The present station at Antioch is north of the site of the original Wisconsin Central, later Soo, depot, and again is on single track, so that in order to clear the section and to change direction passenger trains must continue north for 1-2km to the secure Metra berthing sidings. Antioch is a small town close to the Wisconsin border, 16km north-east of Fox Lake; the facilities of Antioch Village are a short walk from the station. The only opportunity for a Chicago - Antioch day out entirely by rail is on the 13:25 from Union Station arriving Antioch at 14:52 and departing back at 15:29 to reach Chicago 16:54.

21] At Deval Tower, near Des Plaines, the North Central Service line to Antioch crosses the Union Pacific Northwest Line to Harvard (and another UP freight line) on the level, and north of Prairie Crossing/Libertyville station near Grayslake it crosses on the level the Milwaukee District North Line to Fox Lake. Proposals for Metra commuter interchange stations at these two crossings are under consideration. A north-to-east connecting curve at Prairie Crossing looked little used in May 2001.

22] Chicago Union - River Grove - Franklin Park - Elgin - Big Timber Road, IL: The Metra-run Milwaukee District West Line has three tracks from Chicago to Franklin Park and double track beyond. Trains from Union Station run hourly on weekdays to Big Timber Road, but only two-hourly at weekends when they terminate at Elgin, a somewhat run-down town on the Fox River, whose main attraction is a large riverboat casino. Elgin station is well situated across the river from the town and was being renovated in summer 2001. The adjacent bus-station has relatively frequent Mon-Fri buses to Geneva Metra station. Big Timber Road lies 5km west of Elgin and is a park-and-ride station open Mon-Fri only. It has a single platform, despite being on a double-track line, so trains cannot be shunted clear, but the Almora crossovers, just east of the station, enable trains to switch tracks. Beyond, the railway now belongs to Canadian Pacific.

23] Chicago Union - La Grange Road - Naperville - Aurora, IL: Off-peak and weekend service on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line for Metra is two-hourly from Union Station, heading west on the intensively used three-track former Chicago, Burlington & Quincy route also used by Amtrak’s trains shown in paragraph 36. Since 1985 Amtrak have favoured Naperville, 45.4km out of Chicago, as a stop for long-distance trains rather than Aurora, 61.4km out, the traditional calling-point, but their Illinois Zephyr trains #346/7/8 call also at La Grange Road (21.9km out). At West Eola (milepost 35.3), 5km before Aurora (milepost 38.4), where the main line swings away slightly southwards on an embankment, a separate but parallel alignment at ground-level heads west into Metra’s Aurora terminus, as part of a Transportation Center with Greyhound bus-station and car-parks. The opening of the new rail facility on 28 February 1988 marked the completion of a scheme which had begun with closure in December 1986 of the town’s station, built by CB&Q in 1925 when the main line was elevated to eliminate level-crossings. The present station building is converted from shops (= engineering-works) constructed by the Aurora Branch Railroad (CB&Q predecessor) in the 1850s-60s, while the adjacent limestone 40-stall former roundhouse (constructed in the same era) houses an American brew-pub.

24] Chicago Union - Lemont - Joliet, IL: Metra-run Heritage Corridor trains on this double-track main line (originally Chicago & Mississippi Railroad, now Canadian National) south-west direct to Joliet offer commuters three inward morning and three return Mon-Fri services, and rather a dreary trip through heavy industry and scrubland, paralleling a derelict canal for some time. Speeds out of Chicago are initially slow and all trains on this main line to St.Louis ‘stop and proceed’ at Panhandle or Brighton Park (8.3km out) where they cross on the flat (‘at grade’) no fewer than three parallel freight railways: the ex-New York Central’s Chicago River & Indiana (‘Chicago Junction’), now Norfolk Southern; the ex-Baltimore & Ohio Chicago Terminal, now CSX; and the ex-Pennsylvania, now NS. All trains are also limited to 10 miles per hour (16km/h) over the flat crossings here. [This crossing was converted to signalled control in July 2007 and the obligatory stop eliminated]. Amtrak’s Chicago - St.Louis, MO trains make their first call at Summit, 19.2km out. Joliet’s 1912-built Union station is still intact. Fortunately, on 20 April 1987 the city council obtained a two-thirds interest in it, from Santa Fe and Illinois Central Gulf, and Metra own the other one-third share, from their acquisition of Rock Island assets. This public ownership has led to rehabilitation and continued care of the building, unlike the fate suffered by so many similar stations. The two remaining platforms are at right-angles to each other in the north-west quadrant of a flat crossing over the Rock Island line. Metra Heritage Corridor and Amtrak trains stop north of (before) the crossing, and Metra Rock Island District trains stop west of (after) the crossing. A round-trip to Joliet is possible going out by Heritage Corridor and returning by the far more attractive Rock Island District line.

25] Chicago Union - Wrightwood - Ashburn - Palos Park - 179th St/Orland Park, IL: Metra-run South West Service serves the area between the two Joliet routes. The convoluted slow exit from Chicago is via a mixture of double and single track (some Metra-owned - they took over operation from Norfolk Southern in 1993). Just beyond 21st Street crossing, trains use a connection, put in in the late 1970s, to reach the tracks of the former Chicago & Western Indiana for the 6.4mi to 74th Street (8mi from Union). Chronologically this was the first section of this route to come into Metra direct ownership. A ‘terminal road’, jointly owned by the lines using its route and the former Dearborn Street terminus; C&WI at one time also ran their own limited commuter service over this route to Dolton. Just beyond 74th Street, the line leaves former C&WI track for former Wabash (later N&W, later NS) track and crosses the Belt Railway of Chicago on the level at Belt Jn (9.2mi from Union) by a ladder of pointwork rather than a diamond. Trains take 25 minutes to reach their first stop at Wrightwood, 18.6km out of Chicago, avoiding any stop in the now insalubrious south side. The line is then single as far as Ashburn, the next stop, double to Palos Park, then single for the final 14km to the single-platform 179th St/Orland Park terminus (46.2km from Union station). This lies on a dead-end spur off the running line, which continues into a fan of carriage sidings. Housing has recently sprung up around the station, which has only a small car parking-lot. 179th St lies only 3km north of Mokena on the Rock Island District line. Until resources are available to improve the rail service, buses supplement the Mon-Fri trains throughout the day. Eight Mon-Fri round-trips are scheduled, and a return trip can be easily made three times during the day. Lack of track capacity is a problem, and the 17:30 departure on 3 August 2001 comprised nine bi-level coaches hauled by two locomotives. The former Wabash Railroad’s main line to Decatur and St.Louis, operated for freight by Norfolk Southern, is now truncated 67.4km out, apparently at the US Army’s Joliet ammunition plant. The May 2001 edition of Metra’s passenger newsletter On the (Bi)Level reported plans for upgrading the existing route to help reduce delays caused by freight trains, increasing the service to 30 trains daily and extending service another 17.4km to Manhattan, beyond Joliet. Earlier thoughts of putting in a connection to Metra’s Rock Island District line at a point near the present bridge over that line at New Lenox - thus giving yet further service to Joliet - were not mentioned in the report.

26] Chicago La Salle St - Gresham - Vermont St - Mokena - Joliet, IL: La Salle Street station is a late 1980s-built south-facing terminus hidden behind a skyscraper, one floor up from ground level, with a small concourse leading out to canopied platforms and eight tracks that serve only the Metra-run Rock Island District line to Joliet. No trace can now be seen of the former 1903-built station (with adjoining goods-yard) that was once the terminus for inter-city trains of Rock Island and (NYC’s) Lake Shore & South Michigan (as joint owners) and of the Nickel Plate (as tenants). The Rock Island District line to Joliet is a remnant of the Chicago Rock Island & Pacific railroad that went bankrupt and was sold off piecemeal in the early 1980s. The first 10.2km to Englewood used to be joint with New York Central, hosting their prestige trains to and from the east until PennCentral diverted them to Union station in 1968. From Gresham, the first stop, 16km out, the original Rock Island main line ran Gresham - Washington Heights - Vermont St but has long had only a sparse rush-hour service, all other trains taking the Gresham - Beverly Hills - Vermont St/Blue Island loop, which boasts eleven stations in 10km. On this section in particular, many stations have but one platform, access to trains on the other track being by wooden footboards for passengers to step across one track and the gap between them. Prior to Amtrak, the first stretch from just beyond Gresham, through Brainerd, to near 91st Street had joint use by the Baltimore & Ohio, and offered the curiosity of seeing B&O trains proceeding towards Chicago (North Western station) in the same direction as Rock Island trains proceeding from Chicago (La Salle Street station). The May 2001 edition of Metra’s passenger newsletter, On the (Bi)Level, reported that a USD1.2M scheme to refurbish Brainerd station with two new platforms and a new ‘warming house and shelter’ was due for completion in June 2001. 111th St station, a wooden structure, was in summer 2001 under restoration as a historic building. Off-peak service, via the loop only, is hourly Mon-Fri, and two-hourly at weekends. The Rock Island line is double throughout except for the final 500m of single track into Joliet Union Station on the west side of the flat crossing. Freight over the main line north of Blue Island is operated by Chicago Rail Link, but south of there several operators use the line.

27] Chicago Randolph St - 59th St - 67th St - Kensington - University Park: Locating Randolph Street station in early August 2001 turned out to be more difficult than expected. At the point where the terminus was marked on the map, a concrete raft had been built, with no obvious entrance nor any indication how long redevelopment work was to last. Eventually a subway was located c.100m away which led to a bare concrete temporary concourse with few facilities except for separate Metra and South Shore Line ticket-offices. Other entrances/exits were later found, via a skyscraper and via a rather seedy underground car-park. Metra platforms are to the north on the west side of the station. South Shore’s Randolph Street terminal, a separate set of platforms newly opened 31 May 1988 to replace ‘temporary’ 1926 facilities, caters for weekday South Shore Line trains and all Sunday services. The Metra Electric lines are Chicago’s busiest commuter railway, with three off-peak departures an hour (excluding South Shore trains) and peak departures on average every two minutes.

28] Heading south from Randolph St, the former Illinois Central electric lines at first parallel the shore of Lake Michigan, double track to Van Buren, then triple to Roosevelt Road. At the site of South Wye Jn, shortly before passing beneath major urban development round McCormick Place (formerly 23rd Street) station, some 3km out, they are joined by unelectrified ex-IC, now CN tracks which are the route of Amtrak’s Chicago - New Orleans, LA trains. A north-to-west curve here formerly led from Chicago Central station, Illinois Central's main-line terminus (near Roosevelt Road Metra station), to reach IC’s western Illinois lines. To enable Chicago Central to be closed, a south-to-west curve was built instead, also giving better freight interchange, and allowing Amtrak trains from the IC lines to access Chicago Union station from 6 March 1972. Chicago Central station was demolished in 1973.

29] Some 13km out, Metra Electric’s 67th St - South Chicago branch diverges south-eastwards, running for much of its 8km length like a double-track tramway down the unfenced central-reservation of a highway. The junction station at 67th St sees service only at unsocial hours when South Chicago trains start at 59th St and connect at 67th St with trains from Chicago. At South Chicago, the line was extended from its former terminus at 91st St to a new terminus at 93rd St from 3 June 2001. This is just about visible from the Amtrak line to Hammond-Whiting, IN and the east. The May 2001 edition of Metra’s passenger newsletter On the (Bi)Level said that the previous wooden station had been built as a temporary facility in 1926, and that the remaining six stations on the branch were to be refurbished by 2003.

30] Four electrified tracks extend from Roosevelt Road to Kensington, c.22km south of Chicago, with many of the platforms on this section being of ancient wooden construction, of little more than one coach-length, and serving only the central slow lines. At Kensington, the South Shore line to Indiana diverges east, and the Kensington - Blue Island branch (no Sunday service) diverges west, 6km of single track with a passing-loop at West Pullman. In summer 2001 platform reconstruction work led to this branch being shortened by 50m at its terminus, near which a single unelectrified non-passenger track connects to the adjacent Rock Island line. Blue Island is across Vermont Street from the Vermont St/Blue Island stop served by Rock Island District trains. Metra Electric’s two branches and the inner 24km of the ‘main line’ together serve some of Chicago’s oldest areas, but newer developments appear as the electric route heads south, double-track from Kensington out to Richton Park, then single to University Park. Canadian National tracks (for Amtrak and freight trains) accompany the electrified tracks south of McCormick Place, and Amtrak trains call at main-line platforms at Homewood. University Park, 51km out, is in a rural area. Carriage sidings, large east and west car parking-lots and a gas-station are nearby, but only a couple of houses.

31] Chicago Randolph St - Kensington - Hegewisch, IL - Hammond, IN - Gary - Dune Park - Michigan City - Carroll Ave - Hudson Lake - Airport Jn - South Bend, IN: The Chicago South Shore & South Bend Railroad was built as a Class 1-standard railroad - although today it has the appearance of the classic American electric interurban (of which category it could be regarded as the last survivor, having seen off various closure proposals). With modernisation finance from the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, the South Shore Line is now in most respects an up-to-date electric suburban railway with significant freight activity. ‘Just around the Corner’ is the slogan on the summer 2001 South Shore Line pocket timetable, next to a sketch of a South Shore unit running through idyllic Indiana-dunes countryside along the south side of Lake Michigan with the industry and skyscrapers of Chicago in the background across the lake. The ‘Corner’ starts when the South Shore single line leaves Metra Electric track #2 at the south end of Kensington platform, crosses on the level the four tracks of the ex-Illinois Central, now Canadian National, main line (which hosts Amtrak’s Chicago - New Orleans, LA trains), and becomes double immediately beyond, swinging east to the station at Hegewisch, IL. At the Illinois/Indiana border the line becomes the responsibility of NICTD, continuing east through the industry that dominates the scene until beyond Gary. Beyond Emerson (51.2km out, and 93.3km west of South Bend, between Gary Metro Center and Miller stations) double track becomes single track with long passing-loops and the line assumes a rural aspect passing through the Indiana Dunes. In Michigan City the single line crosses the Amtrak (ex-Michigan Central, ex-New York Central) Chicago - Detroit, MI line on the level and runs unprotected up the middle of 11th Street, in classic interurban style, past 11th St ‘station’ comprising a bus-shelter on the sidewalk flanked by two station signs. At least two old mileposts and other railroad signs remain on the road-verge in this area. The traction depot for the electric units is near Carroll Avenue station on the town’s eastern fringe. Beyond Michigan City the line runs alongside a large recreational lake served by Hudson Lake station. Originally the line terminated in downtown South Bend, and at Airport Jn a siding still disappears east into the distance along the old formation. However trains today make use of old industrial tracks to turn slowly through two right-angles to terminate in a trainshed at the east end of South Bend Airport’s modern terminal building. At the start of August 2001 the final section of line into the airport was being relaid to higher standards. To serve the needs of Chicago-bound commuters, the weekday train service is somewhat disjointed, and only five workings run the full length of the line. At weekends, however, seven trains run Chicago - South Bend and eight back, with a turn-round time of 20 mins.

Amtrak passenger rail services line by line

32] Chicago Union - Homewood (- Kankakee, IL): With the closure of Chicago Central station and diversion of long-distance services to Union station on 6 March 1972, Amtrak trains #391/392 Illini and #58/59 City of New Orleans to and from the ex-Illinois Central, now Canadian National, main line to the south have to reverse at least once and follow a route which crosses the Metra Rock Island District line on the level at 16th St interlocking, whose Metra-owned tower (= signal-box) is in the north-west quadrant, 1.75km south of LaSalle Street station. From the site of South Wye Jn, the Amtrak route adopts more or less the former IC main-line alignment, slightly displaced laterally by building works. It then quickly crosses above the Metra Electric lines, underneath the McCormick Place development and just north of McCormick Place Metra station to run along the east side of the Metra Electric tracks, expanding to four tracks at about 17km from Union station, then crossing the South Shore Line on the level at Kensington. Amtrak trains stop at Homewood (c.40km from Union station), where the route reduces to three tracks. At c.54km from Union station it converges to a single track.

33] The IC route from Central station was also shared, north of Kankakee, by New York Central passenger trains to Cincinnati and Indianapolis (the so-called Big Four Route). Between Union station and 16th Street, Amtrak trains can (and do) take at least three regular routes, given numbers here for convenience:

  • Route 1: 21st St - 23rd St (on the ex-Pennsylvania, later Conrail, now Norfolk Southern, line towards Englewood; see paragraph 40) - reverse - IC/Conrail Connection - 16th St
  • Route 2: North arm of Amtrak Canal Street wye - Union Avenue interlocking (= Halsted Street Metra station) - reverse - 16th St
  • Route 3: Just short of 21st St - reverse - south arm of Amtrak Canal Street wye - Union Avenue interlocking - reverse - 16th St

34] Routes 1 and 2 both involve an inbound train propelling into Union station and an outbound train propelling out, the latter being undesirable because the locomotive will be emitting exhaust-fumes at the bumping-post (= stop-block). Route 3, at the cost of a leisurely double reversal, obviates this. To some extent, the way the set of carriages has to face for its next trip, and the need for tail-end express (= parcels) boxcars to be attached or detached at the Canal Street wye, may determine the choice of route. Outbound train #391Illini on 5 May 2001 ran via route 1 while outbound #59 City of New Orleans on 17 June 2001 ran via route 3. As at June 2001, the normal routes for the trains were: outbound #391 Illini: route 1; outbound #59 City of New Orleans: route 3; inbound #392 Illini: route 2; and inbound #58 City of New Orleans: route 2. Any route may be used as an alternative if the normal one is blocked by freight traffic.

35] That section of routes 2 and 3 between Union Avenue and 16th St is known as the St.Charles Airline, sometimes rendered as ‘St.Charles Air Line’. Usage is not consistent, though former user Illinois Central seemed to favour the single-word version. (‘Air line’ is a US railroad term for a direct, ‘as-the-crow-flies’, route.) At one time jointly owned by Illinois Central, Chicago Burlington & Quincy, Chicago & North Western and Michigan Central, the right of way of the Airline is now owned by Canadian National (as successor to Illinois Central) to the west bank of the river and by Union Pacific (as successor to C&NW) beyond - although operationally the line is controlled by CN. On the line is a lift-bridge over the South Branch of the Chicago River which is controlled by CSX, rather than CN, because the parallel but disused (permanently raised) similar bridge was owned by a CSX predecessor, the B&OCT, on its (now abandoned) route to Grand Central station and - when operational - both bridges had to be raised together. The St.Charles Airline crosses the north end of the Canal Street wye on an overbridge. The junction between route 1 and routes 2 and 3 at 16th St is called Clark Street Jn, just east of the flat crossings of the Metra line. A single west-to-south chord links the eastbound St.Charles Airline and the Metra No.2 Main Track. According to Trains magazine (June 1999) the city of Chicago had been seeking to eliminate this east-to-west route, but nothing has been heard about this proposal lately. The alternative route proposed was to start from Grand Crossing, which is between Metra Electric stations 19th St and 75th St and was originally a flat crossing, constructed by the IC (at night!) in 1852 to cross the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern (later New York Central, now NS). An overbridge was later constructed here to take the LS&MS above the IC (possibly as part of grade separation work for roads in the area). At the same spot, the Nickel Plate (New York, Chicago & St.Louis) came in, from the south-east, on the east side of the former IC (now CN), crossed over the IC on a bridge (much of their abandoned embankment is still there and can be seen from Metra or Amtrak trains), then under and alongside the LS&MS to join it to reach Englewood and La Salle Street station. Under the city’s proposals, that Nickel Plate flyover and diveunder would be reinstated, enabling Amtrak trains from the south (paragraph 32) to join the route of the other trains from the east (para. 37) between Englewood and Union station. Freights would follow the same route to near 47th St, thence by a new south-to-west chord - crossing the Metra South West (ex C&WI) route - to reach an existing ex-Grand Trunk Western (now CN) east-west line and, by a further new chord (east-to-north, near Western station on the CTA Midway line), to reach CN's Railport yard.

36] Chicago Union - Naperville (- Plano, IL): Between the west end of Amtrak’s Canal Street Wye, at Union Avenue interlocking, and West Eola, Amtrak trains #3/4, 5/6 and 347/348 follow the BNSF route described in paragraph 23 - and then continue on the ex-Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, now BNSF, main line.

37] Chicago Union - Joliet (- Dwight, IL): Amtrak trains #21/22, 303/304 and 300/305 follow the CN route described in paragraph 24 - and then continue on the ex-Chicago & Alton, now UP, main line. Between South Joliet and Mazonia, an alternative route exists for northbound trains (at least) via UP's Coal City branch to Pequot and then the jointly worked (BNSF/UP) line to South Joliet. Amtrak’s use of the closely parallel ex-AT&SF, now BNSF, route between Bridgeport and Joliet (and thence to Cameron, IL) ceased 1 August 1996 when trains #3/4 were diverted to the CB&Q route (paragraph 36).

38] Chicago Union - Glenview, IL (- Sturtevant, WI): Amtrak trains #7/8 and 330-341 follow the Metra route described in paragraph 19 to Rondout - and then continue on the ex-Milwaukee, now Canadian Pacific line.

39] Chicago Union - Dyer, IN: Amtrak trains #50/51 Cardinal and 850/851 Kentucky Cardinal have had a very chequered route history and are now on their sixth reroute out of Chicago since Amtrak took over on 1 May 1971, the changes usually taking effect because of the declining condition of the relevant freight trackage. The current route came into effect 1 July 1993. It uses the ex-Chicago & Western Indiana, now South West Service, route (paragraph 25) as far as 74th Street, Hamilton Park (8mi from Union), where it diverges on to a NS-owned single-track connection to reach 81st Street (9mi) and to cut across the Belt Railway of Chicago. From here is UP (ex-C&WI to Dolton, thereafter ex-Chicago & Eastern Illinois, a ‘bridge road’ formerly bringing in passenger trains from the south and Florida via Evansville, IN) to a 1990s chord at Thornton Jn (20.1mi) to reach ex-Grand Trunk Western, now CN. When GTW themselves ran passenger trains, before the Thornton chord, they had to carry on round the south-west side of the city to join the C&WI at 47th St! After the short stretch of CN, another 1990s chord at Maynard Jn (26mi) provides access to ex-Chicago, Indianapolis & Louisville Railway (renamed Monon in 1956), now CSX. From here, the route has been in use since 27 August 1986 - but had previously lost its passenger service from 1 October 1967. The first passenger stop is at Dyer, IN (29.5mi). The Monon, in their passenger days, also used the C&WI north of 81st St - but by a now-abandoned route between there and Munster.

40] Chicago Union - Hammond-Whiting, IN (- Porter, IN / Nappanee, IN): Beyond 21st Street, Amtrak trains #29/30, 40/41, 43/44, 48/49, 350-355, 364/365 and 370/371 to the east run parallel to the South West Service (paragraph 22) as far as 47th Street, but on ex-Pennsylvania, later Conrail, now NS, tracks. The route crosses the Metra Rock Island line on the level at Englewood (7mi from Union, 6.7mi from La Salle), where a (now demolished) Union station was also served by the New York Central trains between La Salle and the east. The area has now fallen on harder times, but in its heyday, Englewood Union station was a stop for upmarket southern Chicago on both routes, and saw a number of not-unintentional simultaneous departures guaranteeing dramatic steam action on the parallel main lines through South Chicago and Hammond, IN to the divergence of the two routes at Gary, IN. According to the December 1951 Official Guide (but with times converted to modern 24h-clock format), NYC’s 20th Century Ltd was booked out at 16:44, PRR’s Broadway Ltd at 16:45; NYC’s Lake Shore Ltd at 18:44, PRR’s Pennsylvania Ltd at 18:45; NYC’s Chicagoan at 23:29, PRR’s Gotham Ltd at 23:30! East of Englewood, however, only the ex-Pennsylvania tracks now survive through Hammond-Whiting Amtrak station (opened in the late 1980s, with a platform only on the northernmost, No. 1 Track, 15.8mi from Union) to Lake Jn (also known as CP506; 16.9mi) where a new connection was brought into use by PennCentral on 27 October 1968. Initially this was a single-track connecting link (the Lake Branch) to enable ex-NYC trains to reach Union Station. Later it was doubled and the ex-Pennsylvania track east of here and the ex-Lake Shore & Michigan Southern, later NYC-owned, tracks west of here were abandoned. At CP501 (21.8mi) Amtrak’s #40/41 Three Rivers diverges on to the parallel ex-B&O, now CSX, line for the run to Nappanee, IN, Akron, OH and points east to New York, NY. Gary’s Union Station (26.8mi) once hosted NYC and B&O trains, sandwiched between the freight tracks of the Elgin Joliet & Eastern and with the view of Lake Michigan blocked by the huge Gary Mill of United States Steel. Although still standing (and visible from South Shore’s Gary Metro Center station), Gary Union Station is now closed. A few km beyond Gary is an 8km stretch where the South Shore line runs eastwards alongside, on the south side, till Burns Harbor where the South Shore crosses by overbridge to stay nearer the lake. Porter (40.6mi or 65km from Union station) is a junction of five routes, four of them with passenger service - and here Amtrak trains from Chicago diverge for:

40.1] Grand Rapids, MI: Trains #370/371 Pere Marquette take the ex-Pere Marquette Railroad, now CSX, hence the train name. This line passes through, but has no Amtrak station in, Michigan City, IN.

40.2] Port Huron, MI and Toronto, ON trains #364/365 and also Detroit, MI and Pontiac, MI trains #350-355 take the ex-NYC-owned Michigan Central, later Conrail line, now owned and maintained by Amtrak as far as Kalamazoo, MI, with trackage rights for freight trains. This line crosses the South Shore line on the level and serves the Amtrak station in Michigan City, IN.

40.3] Toledo, OH and points east: Trains #29/30, 43/44 and 48/49 take this ex-Lake Shore & Michigan Southern, later New York Central-owned, now Norfolk Southern line.

Chicago’s closed main-line termini

41] The sites of all three closed terminals are in the city’s central business district, in the area known as South Loop:

41.1] Grand Central, at Wells and Harrison, was owned by the B&O Chicago Terminal and used by B&O, C&O, Chicago Great Western and Soo. It closed 8 November 1969 when B&O/C&O trains were diverted to North Western station, and was demolished in 1971 for eventual redevelopment. The abandoned lift bridge over the South Branch of the Chicago River, on the north side of the St.Charles Airline, was part of the rail access route to this station.

41.2] Dearborn, at Polk and Dearborn, was owned by the Chicago & Western Indiana as a terminal for its controlling railroads (Santa Fe, Erie, Monon, Chicago & Eastern Illinois, Grand Trunk Western, Wabash). The main station closed 1 May 1971, not being required by Amtrak, but for some five years thereafter the precursor to today’s Metra South West Service (paragraph 25) ran from an annex at the side of Dearborn station known as Polk Street Station, before being diverted to Union station over a link between C&WI track (then abandoned north of the link) and ex-PRR track just south of 21st Street. Fortunately the building (‘head house’) with its distinctive red-brick clock-tower still stands at the foot of South Dearborn Street as centrepiece of a new development.

41.3] Central, at Michigan and Roosevelt, was owned by the Illinois Central and used by NYC’s Big Four Route services. It closed 6 March 1972 with the diversion of the last remaining Amtrak trains to Union station and was demolished in 1974 for eventual redevelopment.


Acknowledgements to Adam H Kerman for information about the St.Charles Airline.