Saturday, October 21, 2017

A Railroad Neighborhood

The expansion of rail lines radiating from Chicago figured prominently into the growth of new communities, along with the real estate speculation that accompanied this.  Two of the best examples of this are Beverly Hills and Morgan Park.  While they are separate neighborhoods that share a common border, the are co-joined and often referred to by residents as the "Village in the City".  Their common history is tied into the decision by the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad to construct a "suburban" branch line from their main track.  Originally running from 99th Street to the suburb of Blue Island, the line was later expanded north to connect with the main at Gresham.
The original Rock Island "Rocket".

The Rock Island's first train departed from Chicago to Joliet on October 10, 1852.  That line would later cross the tracks of the the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railroad (aka Panhandle) at a point known as "The Junction" that would become the Village of Washington Heights.  Much of the lands around Washington Heights were part of the vast estate holdings of one Thomas Morgan, English gentleman farmer, who had purchased 3000 acres from early Chicago settler John Blackstone in 1844 for his estate known as "Upwood".  Morgan would give the Chicago & Great Eastern Railroad (progenitor of the Panhandle) an easement through his property in 1864.  The seed was planted for development.

Real estate ads for the newly developing suburbs of Beverly and Washington Heights.

Left: Washington Heights map shows the original suburban line with the main track at connection at 97th Street.  Right: Map of the suburban line after the extension to Gresham.

Passenger train service was initially sparse, with the Panhandle providing a few "accommodation" trains, while the Rock Island deigned to not stop their trains there at all.  With the death of Morgan, his heirs sold their holdings to Fredrick H. Winston who helped to form the Blue Island Land and Building Company.  Its important to note that executives of the Rock Island also held positions in the Land and Building Company.  While initially know as the Washington Heights Subdivision, the area would become the Village of Morgan Park.  In the 1870's construction of branch line began from 97th Street west to a point below the glacial formation known as the Blue Island Ridge, which was completed in 1871.  The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 would accelerate the migration of residents away from the central city to newly platted suburbs.  The burghers of Morgan Park envisioned a sylvan enclave far removed from the bustle and cacophony of burgeoning Chicago.

A Rock Island Forney locomotive pulls a train towards Chicago.
An example of a "dummy" locomotive.  Some early newspaper articles speak of the Panhandle railroad operating a dummy train for the convenience of residents in Washington Heights.  This may have given rise to the name "Dummy Line" for the Rock Island branch line.

By 1883 the Rock Island was operating 10 daily suburban trains each way, mostly on the Suburban Branch between Chicago and Blue Island.  In 1889 the line was extended north through Beverly, and the new development of Brainerd, to a mainline connection at 89th Street.  Within a year there were 19 trains operating each day.  Like many early suburban commuter operations the trains were steam powered with diminutive locomotives known as Forneys, named after their inventor Mathias Forney.  The locomotives combined the steam engine with the coal and water carrying tender as one integrated unit.  They were designed to run boiler forward in one direction and tender forward in the reverse.  This arrangement negated the need to turn the locomotive so that it always ran in the typical boiler forward mode.  Turning required a either a turntable or wye track, and was time consuming.  The Forneys were uncoupled from the train at the end of a run, then run around the equipment and quickly coupled back on the the opposite end of the train.  Residents coined the nickname "Dummy Line" to describe the branch line, perhaps due to the slight resemblance of the locomotives to the early shrouded steamers, known as "dummies", designed so as not to scare horses (it didn't work).  Another theory put forth by local historians is that early train service to the area was operated by dummy locomotives on the Panhandle line.

The first Morgan Park Station.

Morgan Park residents unashamedly touted the quality of their mode of transportation versus that afforded city residents.  While the streetcar system did eventually expand to the area it was not a major factor in community development.

Morgan Park did indeed grow become a well-to-do suburb, the nexus of which was the business district around the 111th Street station.  Impressive mansions sprouted up along the two main streets of Washington and Prospect, particularly at the top of the Blue Island Ridge.  There were also more humble working man's cottages east of the tracks, and a small African American community grew in that area as well.  Beverly grew as well, and the early 20th Century saw the neighborhood become a solidly middle class community with a mix of housing that ran the gamut from mansions to bungalows.  The area attracted a number of notable architects who helped to create a leafy oasis of attractive homes on the edge of the city.

Top L-R: 91st Street (Beverly Hills), 95th Street (Longwood), 99th Street (Walden).  Middle L-R: 103rd Street (Tracy), 107th Street (Belmont).  Bottom L-R: 111th Street (Morgan Park), 115th Street (Raymond).  The original station names are noted in parentheses.  Photos from the Ridge Historical Society.

Preliminary report recommending landmark status for the train stations.

In 1889 the original 111th Street Station was moved and converted to a residence.  In its place rose a Romanesque style depot designed by architect John Long, the construction cost of which was shared by local residents, businessmen and the railroad.  In all, 7 stations were built between 91st and 115th Streets during the late 1880's.  Each station was unique in it's design and were exemplary of the architecture of small town train stations of the late 19th Century.  The majority of the stations lasted into the 21st Century, save for Longwood (95th Street), Tracy (103rd Street) and Raymond (115th).  Each station was built with second floor living quarters for the station agents and their families.  Small business districts grew up around each station, adding to the small town charm of each area.  The City of Chicago recognized the unique nature of these stations by creating a landmark district that encompassed 6 of the 7 stations.  The luck of their survival is much owed to the fact that the tracks through the area were not part of Chicago's track elevation ordinances.  The tracks remain at grade level.  103rd Street was not included in the district as it was built to replace the original station in the 1960's, and is an unremarkable brick structure.  The 111th Street Station was damaged by a tornado in 1909, but was rebuilt as it stands today.  Metra undertook a program that saw the 95th, 99th and 111th Street stations undergo historic restorations.  Funding for the program ran out and the other stations languish waiting for the necessary funds for their turn at renewal.  115th Street (Raymond) Station was the luckless victim of a fire set by vandals on Memorial Day weekend in 2017.  It was badly damaged and demolished, with no apparent plans or funds to provide a suitable replacement.

The Rock Island began to dieselize their commuter service in the late 1940's.  Perennially cash poor, the railroad would re-purpose older locomotives from intercity passenger service or purchase used equipment from other railroads.  The steam engine pulls a set of "Capone cars" while preparing to pass an Alco RS-1 diesel used in commuter service.  The railroad did purchase some new bi-level coaches which allowed for the introduction of "Push-Pull" service.  Photo by John Humiston from the Classic Trains Collection.

The branch line was primarily used for commuter service.  Some businesses at 111th Street, such as a coal yard, required minimal freight service which would have originated at the Rock Island's Blue Island freight yard.  The Rock Island continued to provide service until its bankruptcy and liquidation in 1980.  At this point the Regional Transportation Authority bought the commuter service and some of the assets of the Rock such as tracks, yards and stations.  By this time the physical plant of the railroad had deteriorated to the point that a massive rebuilding program was required to restore the railroad to an adequate level of safety and efficiency.  So to, the tired and worn locomotives and passenger cars needed replacement.  Now, almost 40 years after assuming the operations and upgrading the service, Metra (the commuter rail division of the RTA) faces the same dilemma of the Rock Island with the specter of diminishing funds to maintain aging equipment and the physical infrastructure.

An Metra commuter train departs the 111th Street Station inbound to Chicago.  Photo by David Daruszka.

Beverly Hills was annexed, as part of Washington Heights, by Chicago in 1890.  Morgan Park became a city neighborhood in 1914 after a protracted battle between residents for and against annexation.  Both communities remain desirable places to live, thanks in part to the excellent railroad transportation that greatly factored into their creation and development.  Residents still consider the branch line as "their railroad".

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Roundhouses and Backshops - Part 2

In my last post I discussed the functions of the roundhouse in the role of steam locomotive maintenance.  Where the roundhouse was the location of "light" and daily servicing, the backshop was where the heavy rebuilding of steam engines and rail cars took place.  Some railroads, like the Norfolk & Western and the Pennsylvania actually manufactured their own locomotives and cars from the ground up.

C&NW's 40th Street Shops

Unlike roundhouses, which could be found at almost every railroad yard, the backshops were only found in a limited number of locations.  The usually served a whole railroad, for smaller lines, or a central to a number of operating districts, for larger ones.  The most notable backshop in Chicago was owned by the Chicago & North Western Railroad and was located on the far West side of the city.  Known as "40th Street", as it was 4000 west in the city's street numbering system,  it was bounded by Crawford Ave. (later renamed Pulaski) Chicago Avenue, Lake Street and the Belt Railway.  It was adjacent to the railroad's classification yard at that location.  The Illinois Central also maintained a large shop on the city's south side know as Burnside.

While the roundhouse was a circular or semi-circular building with a turntable located in the center, the backshop buildings were linear.  In the case of the erecting shops, this was necessary to accommodate the heavy traveling cranes that traveled across the length of the building.  These buildings were two to three stories tall to accommodate lifting large components, such as boilers and driving wheels from location to location in the repair or erection process.
 An overhead crane rated for 258 tons lifts a locomotive.

The backshops were more than one building.  Each structure in the complex served a specific function: boiler making and repair, paint and varnish, metal machining, carpentry, etc.  They were in essence factories unto themselves, very often supplying the power necessary to accomplish the work.  In some cases the buildings allowed locomotives, components and cars to move in and out of either side of the structure.  Movement between buildings was accomplished via "transfer tables", a linear version of the roundhouse turntable.

Transfer table

The backshops were hives of activity with hundreds of laborers and skilled craftsman working around the clock to keep up with the everyday tasks at hand.  The steam locomotive required constant rebuilding, replacing boiler tubes corroded by steam was a common job.  Wheels were removed and worn "tires" replaced, moving parts inspected and replaced as necessary.  Each locomotive tended to be unique, with no "off the shelf" components available for repairs.  Parts would be cast and then machined.  Locomotives could be periodically upgraded with newer technologies to extend their working lives.  Some entered the shops and came out radically different machines.  The Illinois Central converted a number of their older freight locomotives for use in suburban commuter service.  The C&NW upgraded passenger locomotives with streamlined shrouding to present a modern and sleek appearance.

 40th Street shop forces working on a locomotive conversion.

In the case of freight and passenger cars, their constant use required frequent maintenance and rebuilding.  Cars damaged in wrecks could be rebuilt and returned to service.  The railroads saw this as a sound return on their initial investment.  As with locomotives, rail cars could be modified and improved or rebuilt for a completely different function.  Diesel locomotives and changes in the industry ended the primacy of the backshop in the railroad industry.  In many cases they were not suitable for diesel maintenance, which like automobiles had standardized parts from the manufacturer that could easily be replaced.  The necessity of having a huge workforce to cater to the steam engines disappeared almost overnight.  Thousands of skilled craftsmen lost their jobs as a result.  Those shops that did hang on were more modern and now functioned as a single point of repair for the whole railroad as opposed to segments of it.

Working in a locomotive smoke box.

When railroads began to merge with their competitors many railroads found themselves with more shops than they needed to efficiently maintain their equipment.  In the case of 40th Street it was supplanted by the former Chicago & Great Western shops in Olwein, Iowa when the C&NW merged with that carrier.  Burnside was eventually replaced by new facilities at Markham Yard in South suburban Harvey.  The growing reliance on leased freight equipment places the burden of heavy repairs on the lessor, and outside firms are making inroads into the car and locomotive repair and rebuilding business.  The former IC shops in Paducah, Kentucky are now operated by a locomotive rebuilding firm.

Former Rock Island steel car shops.

Little remains of these expansive facilities that can be found or recognized by the casual observer.  One shop building at 40th Street remain, now re-purposed for other non-railroad uses, although the M19A diesel shop is still used to service commuter locomotives.  One building at Burnside remains and in use by Chicago State University which now occupies the site of the former shops.  Rock Island's steel car shops in Blue Island are now in use by a plumbing firm, but the terra cotta herald still proudly shows its former life.  The exception to the rule in Chicago is Metra's 47th Street Shops, formerly owned by the Rock Island Railroad.  The former "Rocket House" is currently engaged in a rebuilding program to upgrade the commuter railroad's locomotive fleet to become compliant with Federal pollution standards for diesel engines.  The car shops have undertaken upgrades to the fleet of commuter cars to extend their usable lives as a cost effective way to prolong the increasingly costly proposition of replacing them with new equipment.  So, a bit of history continues on the city's south side.

Metra's 47th Street diesel shop.  Dan Marinellie photo.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Roundhouses and Back Shops - Part I

 Chicago & North Western Roundhouse at the 40th Street Yards.

Two of the lost physical elements of Chicago's railroads are the roundhouse and the back shop.  These structures played different roles in the care and maintenance of steam locomotives.  Some of these structures survived into the diesel era, but diesel servicing presented a different set of requirements that the roundhouse was not suited for.

The first railway roundhouse was built in 1839 at Derby, England by the North Midland Railway, although some private workshops may have previously been laid out in a radial pattern.  The roundhouse's primary function was for the storage and maintenance of steam locomotives. However since most locomotives operated in only one direction, forward, turntables were placed in the front and center of the roundhouse. The buildings served as light maintenance facilities and also allowed the locomotives to be turned as needed.  The familiar semi-circular design simplified that task.

 Turntable at Chicago & North Western's Proviso Yards.

The turntable itself was a sort of pivoting bridge operated by an electric motor (smaller turntables operated by manpower were know as "armstrongs".  The locomotive would be placed into the roundhouse front or "smokebox" first.  The smokestack would be placed underneath an exhaust hood known as a "smoke jack" to vent exhaust gases from the locomotive out of the work area.

Jack Delano photo of the interior of a Chicago & North Western Roundhouse.

Once servicing was complete an employee known as a "hostler", whose duties involved moving locomotives around the servicing areas, would back the locomotive onto the turntable where it would be turned to face the desired direction of travel if necessary.  Servicing at a roundhouse would include lubrication of all working parts and an inspection of the boiler and firebox.  If the engine was allowed to go cold, a new fire would be built to return the locomotive to steam.

 Coaling and sanding towers at Chicago & North Western's 40th Street Yard.

Ancillary to the roundhouse were facilities to dump ash from the firebox, water spigots, as well as coaling and sanding towers to replenish the locomotive and tender.  Woe be to the employee wandering around in the dark who fell into an ash pit, as they could be filled with water along with ashes.  Water, coaling and sanding (for traction) were performed by the hostler and hostler helper prior to the locomotive being placed on the "ready track" where the engine crew would pick it up to move to their train.

Pere Marquette locomotive taking on water at the B&O Robey Street Yards.

There were some 35 roundhouses within the city limits servicing locomotives for the various railroads.  Needless to say they were a ubiquitous part of many city neighborhoods.  They varied in size depending on the railroad operations they served.  Railroads with both freight, passenger and/or commuter service would have the largest or multiple roundhouses at one location.  Every major freight and passenger yard had a roundhouse.

The Pennsylvania's Railroads roundhouse at 55th Street is a good example of a smaller roundhouse.  
Many workers lived close by in the surrounding neighborhood.

As locomotives grew in size so to did the roundhouses.  Old ones were torn down and replaced by more modern facilities; turntables were lengthened to accommodate the larger engines and tenders.  The exception might be a roundhouse that only serviced yard switch engines which tended to be smaller than road engines.  The roundhouse was, at many times, a 24 hour hive of activity with locomotives being quickly serviced to return to duty.  An army of trained craftsmen were responsible for machining and replacing worn parts, as each locomotive was a unique machine.  Aside from machinists there were boiler makers, pipe fitters, sheet metal fabricators, welders, electricians, and painters.

 Illinois Central roundhouse workers pose on the turntable in Champaign, IL.

That uniqueness, and the manpower that was required for their maintenance, was the eventual downfall of steam power on American railroads.  The diesel locomotive required minimal daily servicing and any needed replacement parts came from the original manufacturer.  The need for a phalanx of workers waiting to tend to the needs of a custom made machine disappeared.  The mass production techniques pioneered by the automakers had been grafted on to the design and manufacture of the railroad locomotive.

 Former Rock Island Railroad diesel shop at 47th Street, now used by Metra

While the roundhouse lingered on into the diesel era, it was not suitable for the type of servicing the new locomotives required.  New diesel shops were built that were often "run through" affairs, with doors on both ends.  The wreckers ball was the ultimate fate for all but a few roundhouses, some were re-purposed and others historically restored perhaps as part of a museum.  The closest surviving roundhouse to Chicago is in Aurora, IL where it was converted into a bar and restaurant.  There are no survivors in Chicago, and scant visible evidence of their presence.  Some turntables have managed to hang on for the mere fact that turning the locomotive to face the direction of travel still has its advantages.

The Rock Island Railroad's roundhouse in Blue Island survived well into the diesel era.  It was subsequently demolished, but the turntable is still used by Metra.

Next post:  The Back Shop... coming soon.


Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Impending Demise of a Chicago Railroad Club

The NRHS and R&LHS represent the two largest and oldest railroad history organizations in the United States.

Rail fans are a ubiquitous part of railroading, and they come with a variety of interests.  Some can be found track side taking photographs while others haunt junk shops and specially organized rail ephemera shows looking for collectibles.  Much like birds of a feather, these fans flock together in special interest groups who have meetings where they can fraternize with like minded individuals.  Among these groups are umbrella history organizations, the two largest being the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society (R&LHS) and the National Railway Historical Society (NRHS).  The national groups hold annual member conventions that provide a variety of activities including excursions and social events for attendees.  These groups also publish periodicals and newsletters that cover various aspects of railroad history.

Photography continues to be a popular aspect of rail fanning.

These national organizations are subdivided into local chapters which have regular meetings with speakers and presentations that cover various aspects of the railroad industry.  Some of the chapters publish informative newsletters for their membership.  Aside from these main group chapters in Chicago there are at least four other smaller rail history groups that call the city home.  In some cases these groups began their lives as rail charter trip operators.  By offering a unique opportunity to ride behind vanishing steam locomotives or over tracks that passenger service vanished from, the groups thrived and maintained healthy memberships and ample volunteers.  For decades the nation was blessed with a plethora of railroads operated by fan friendly management.  That landscape has changed.

Rail Camp is an NRHS sponsored program that introduces young people to railroad history and operations.

Through mergers and consolidations the number of railroad operations have been winnowed down to a few major corporations.  Passenger service disappeared from private operation and is now under the purview of the quasi-governmental entity known as Amtrak.  The cost of operating rail charters has driven most groups out of the business.  Add to that the fact that many of the corporate railroad operators are adverse to having fan trips on their rails.  The issues of liability and interference with the money making operation of freight trains have diminished the opportunities for these types of private excursions into the category of rarity.  Most railroads that previously operated their own heritage excursion trains have left the market as well.  Paranoia since the attacks of 911 has created cadre of overly zealous railroad employees, security and even municipal police who view everyone with a camera as a terrorist.

 Common interests and camaraderie have long been a driving force of rail fan organizations.

This has left many fan groups and clubs with the monthly meeting model of operation.  A member or special speaker will show up with slides or a digital presentation.  It may be a program about a certain railroad, an aspect of history, or occasionally an aspect of modern railroads from an expert.  These meetings tend to attract a smaller audience and are often attended by what I term the "know-it-all" fan.  These people can suck the joy out of any gathering by interrupting a presentation with a litany of facts and figures and a desire to debate anyone about them.  To these individuals it is less about the social aspects of a gathering and more about a convenient soapbox for their rantings.  This in turn convinces any new attendees that their time might be better spent with more singular activities.

Railroad museums are another way history groups help interpret railroading to the general public.

Some chapters maintain historic structures to house their collections.  Others may own static equipment displays, such as locomotives or cars, or assist in their maintenance.  A select few may own operating locomotives that are used on special occasions or in museum service.  This requires members willing to underwrite the cost of maintaining those physical assets, and volunteers to staff and maintain collections, equipment and museums.  Volunteers are at a premium and those groups who have chosen this model often struggle with maintaining an active volunteer base.

Historic railroad equipment is a another example of preservation work by rail history organizations.

The aging demography of these organizations also factors in to their decline.  While rail fandom is still a poplar hobby, attending group meetings is not.  The internet is now the preferred social platform for the photographers and history buffs.  A wide variety of groups exist on Facebook alone that cater to a specific railroad, method of operation, or collectable ephemera.  No annual dues are required to join an internet group, and if you run into an obnoxious know-it-all you can always block them.  The end result of this shift to the "unsocial" media is a shrinking membership base for physical groups and clubs.  This in turn means fewer individuals willing to accept leadership roles to keep these groups going.  In certain instances the groups can shoulder some of the blame themselves.  Certain members hold leadership positions for decades and do little to groom leaders for the future.  When they are willing to give up the reins of leadership no one is there to take them up.

Partnerships with governmental organizations can be useful in preserving and restoring stations and other structures.

This is the situation one of the organizations I belong to finds themselves in.  With 36 local members no one appears to be willing to step in to take on the Chairmanship, and the Chicago chapter may cease to exist as of the end of 2016.  Having volunteered as a board member and program director for another rail organization I do not see myself as a candidate.  I'm sure the Chicago chapter is not alone in this dilemma. The national organizations are struggling with declining membership rolls and treasuries as well.  Railroad history groups and clubs may disappear just like the many things that attracted people to the genre have as well.  If these entities are to survive they will probably take a new form more suitable to the internet.  Some groups who maintain historic collections continue to thrive and have well-attended annual meetings.  Other small groups of fans gather for image presentations and socializing.  This still requires an active group of volunteers to help make the events a success.  And in the end, that is probably the critical element for survival.

Membership dues help to pay for publications that highlight the history of railroading.  Many of the articles are well researched and academic in nature.  This important service would be lost if the organizations who support it were to disappear.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Dinkies, Dummies, Scoots & Plugs

 A "dummy" train on Chicago's North side.  The word "dummy" became synonymous for many early commuter trains.

The lexicon of railroading is filled with unusual words that constitute a foreign language to those outside of the industry. This post's title refers to the various names associated with commuter service in Chicago.

At a point early in the history of Chicago, railroads large and small provided some sort of "accommodation" trains for the convenience of city and suburban residents. These all-stop locals were at first the only efficient means for people to travel longer distances within the urban area. As more residents moved out of the city proper the demand for more frequent and faster service arose. To meet this demand the railroads developed special purpose locomotives and passenger cars specifically for commuter service. Rather than subject suburbanites to an arduous journey of the train stopping at every station, express services were offered.

Early commuter train in suburban Oak Park.

The railroads never turned a great profit from commuter trains. Many of the smaller carriers dropped their commuter trains early in the 20th Century to focus on freight and/or long distance passenger trains. The larger players: the Illinois Central, Burlington, Milwaukee Road, North Western, Wabash, C&WI and GM&O stayed in the market. The last three on that list were minor players, but the first four developed robust operations that moved thousands of passengers on a daily basis. There were also three major electric interurban operations that provided a sort of competitive service to the steam railroads. Many city stations disappeared as horse cars, then cable cars and finally streetcars pushed further out and the city annexed suburbs. The Elevated train lines further sapped passengers who opted for a longer ride and cheaper fares. The suburbs became the bread and butter of commuter operations.

A Rock Island suburban train powered by a Forney-type locomotive in the late 1800's. The locomotive was designed to run in either direction, eliminating the time consuming task of turning the locomotive to face forward.

Each small village with a train station blossomed into bedroom suburbs in the 1920's as families sought to move away from the crowded city to more idyllic surroundings. The Great Depression upended this movement, and the railroads sought to economize their operations. The resulting decline in the quality of service became a constant source of complaints for those who still depended on the trains. World War II brought back the passengers, but the railroads continued to rely aging and outdated equipment. With the focus being the movement of freight for the wartime effort, commuter service became the ugly stepchild or railroading.

This typical post-World War II scene shows Chicago & North Western trains during rush hour. The steam locomotives and single level coaches would soon be replaced during a spate of fleet modernizations.

Postwar saw the pent up need for housing blossom into a mass exodus from the city, but now the interstate highway and expressway system became the driving force. Unlike other cities that saw their commuter rail succumb to the supremacy of the private automobile, the Chicago railroads modernized in an attempt to stem the flow of patrons. Steam locomotives were replaced by diesels, new bi-level commuter cars entered service on a number of lines. In reality, the expressway system would never have been able to handle the volume of traffic if the railroads were to have discontinued commuter operations. A certain clientele continued to enjoy the convenience of riding the train during rush hour, and the hourly frequency of non-peak trains by the major carriers allowed people to conveniently travel downtown or between suburbs.

With the advent of dieselization, the concept of "Push-Pull" service was implemented.  The bi-level coaches included some with operating cabs, which allowed the Engineer to operate the train pushed from the rear by the locomotive.  Both the CB&Q and the C&NW were pioneers in this form of operation.

 The Rock Island experimented with an Italian railcar designed by Fiat with the idea of lowering operating costs.

Other problems loomed large in the rail industry that would eventually impact commuter service. As profits dropped in intercity passenger and freight, the bottom line that allowed the railroads to fund commuter trains eroded. The new equipment of the 1950's and 1960's began to show their age, and no private money existed to replace them. Maintenance of the physical plant of the various railroads became virtually non-existent. The railroads exited the intercity passenger market with the establishment of Amtrak, and a few railroads teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. Two of the electric interurbans went belly up. In the 1960's and 70's the voters of six counties formed the Regional Transportation Authority to serve as a conduit for public funding of the commuter railroads.

The Blue Island station on the IC Electric is a good example of the deteriorated state of the commuter rail system by the 1960's.

The defining moment of change was the bankruptcy of the Milwaukee Road.  The Regional Transportation Authority stepped in to assume the Milwaukee Road's commuter operations. The Rock Island was the next domino to fall.  Eventually the RTA would assume operation of all the commuter lines, save the North Western and the Burlington. In the case of those two railroads the RTA provided operational funding while the railroads provided crews and initially equipment. Today the region's commuter operations are under the purview of Metra, the RTA's commuter rail subsidiary. The RTA has funded new equipment, physical upgrades and extensions of service on existing lines and new startups.

Prior to the RTA, Suburban communities formed Mass Transit Districts in order to qualify for Federal funding for new equipment.  Both the Milwaukee Road and the IC benefited from this arrangement.

 The RTA began to replace the older locomotives used by the railroads, many of them refugees from the defunct intercity passenger fleets.  The EMD F40 was designed specifically for commuter as well as Amtrak service.

Counties and communities that are part of the service area contribute a percentage of Metra's operating budget. That budget also includes other sources of tax revenue and cash recovery from the fare box. Commuter rail continues to struggle with funding issues due to an unstable State economy, parsimonious politicians in Washington, and an economic decline that led to a loss in passenger revenue.  Fares have been raised to help defray operating costs as well a fund new equipment and other necessary upgrades to the system.  The unfunded mandate for Positive Train Control carries a multi-million dollar price tag that saps resources from other needs.

So, whether you ride a Dinky, Dummy, Scoot or Plug you are a participant in the ongoing story of commuter trains in Chicago.

Sunday, February 14, 2016


On February 12, 2016 Metra, the Chicago area commuter rail agency, retired the last set of "Highliner" electric powered multiple unit rail cars.  In honor of this auspicious occasion Player With Railroads revisits the why and how of Chicago's only electric commuter rail service.

On July 21, 1919 the City of Chicago passed the "Lake Front Ordinance" providing for electrification of the Illinois Central Railroad's suburban commuter service by 1927, freight service north of Roosevelt Rd by 1930 and south between Roosevelt Rd. and the city limits by 1935.  The eventual goal was the electrification of both the IC's and the Michigan Central Railroads' freight and intercity passenger service by the 1940's.

Steam era image of IC's Randolph Street commuter terminal.
The impetus for the ordinance was the smoke generated by thousands of steam locomotives operating in and out of the city as well as the numerous switch engines working in yards and industries scattered around the city.  It was felt that eliminating steam locomotives along the lakefront would go a long way to improve the air quality in the city.  No other railroad was made a party to the ordinance.

Track elevation.
The scope of the project was enormous.  It was what today we might call an "unfunded mandate" as the majority of the costs were borne by the railroad.  The tracks between 67th Street and the end of the line in Richton were elevated above street level.  In some cases the fill used to construct the embankments came from other improvement projects the IC had undertaken along their route south of the city.  At grade crossings with other railroads were eliminated for reasons of both safety and efficiency.  The grade level crossing to the South Chicago branch was eliminated and replaced by a tunnel that ran underneath the freight and passenger main line tracks and descended to the grade level tracks of the branch.  The largest and most complicated of these grade separation projects was at Grand Crossing, dubbed "the most dangerous railroad crossing in the world".

Grand Crossing grade seperation project.
The right of way was widened and additional tracks added with provisions for even more tracks to accommodate future growth.  A massive modern classification yard called "Markham" was built between Harvey and Homewood, IL, and designed to replace a number of smaller yards in Chicago.  Markham, located far outside Chicago's city limits, remained a bastion of steam until the advent of diesel electric locomotives.

Markham Yard (click on image for a larger view).
The electrical distribution was achieved by a 1500 volt DC system delivered to the overhead wires that powered the trains via 7 electrical substations owned by Commonwealth Edison.  High voltage Alternating Current was fed into the substations where it was "rectified" to the lower voltage Direct Current.  The substations also provided for the low voltage AC needs of the railroad such as lighting for stations and facilities, wayside signals and electrically operated switches at interlockings.  Steel "cantenary" structures were erected every 300 feet to support the overhead wire system that delivered power to the cars.  The cantenary supported not only the wires for DC and AC systems, but also the new signals and circuit control systems and communication lines.

Brookdale Substation
Right of way near 43rd Street.
Many of the IC's Victorian stations used during the steam powered commuter days were demolished and replaced with more utilitarian structures more suited to urban rapid transit use.  The new cars were designed for high level platforms rather than ground loading.  Rather than having passengers climb steps into the cars, the high level platforms allowed for direct entry into the cars cutting down loading times and speeding up schedules.

The 22nd Street Station was one of many stations that disappeared after electrification.
There was minimal electrification of the freight yards in the downtown Loop business district and yards on the near south side.  There were also some nascent diesel locomotives employed on the South Chicago branch for switching online industries.  The rapid development of the diesel locomotive would bring an end to any idea of further electrification beyond the suburban commuter service as they satisfied the requirements of the Ordinance.

Electric freight locomotive near 35th Street.
The new multiple unit cars (MU), so called because coupled units of multiple cars could be controlled by the motorman from a single control cab, were built by the Pullman Company in their south side plant along the IC mainline.  The cars were designed as motor car and trailer sets, with pairs coupled into longer trains of up to 8 cars.  The motor cars were equipped with a pantograph that drew electricity from the overhead wires when raised.  The pantograph could be lowered or raised by the engineer in the cab, or with a special insulated pole in the event failure of the automatic system.  The cars were equipped with special couplers that carried the electrical connections for control as well as the air connections for brakes.  The cars could be coupled and uncoupled by the engineer in the control cab as well as manually outside the train.  Despite not being powered, the coaches had a duplicate control cab making the cars bi-directional without having to turn them.  The IC had briefly considered the idea of using electrically powered locomotives with unpowered coaches, but eventually chose the MU equipment.

Pullman Multiple Unit motor car and trailer.
What the new Pullman cars did not have was air conditioning and bathrooms.  When they were replaced by the new double-decked "Highliner" cars beginning in 1971 air conditioning was included, but not bathrooms.  Commuters would have to wait for the delivery of the latest version of the Highliners to have someplace to take care of business.

Electrification Day celebration.
August 27, 1926 was a day of celebration as electric service was initiated.  The massive civil engineering project that was undertaken brought fast, efficient and clean mass transportation to Chicago.  The retirement of the second series of equipment by Metra, successor to the Illinois Central, marks the ongoing improvement of a system that has served commuters from the the south side and southern suburbs for 80 years.  Much of the physical system remains in place and will continue to be upgraded as public funds permit.  This is a credit to the quality of design and construction built into the original project.