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History of Chicagoland's Commuter Service

The commuter service operated today is a culmination of over 130 years of commuter service on 12 routes radiating from Chicago over nine different railroads today. This hub will look at each operation when it was started by its original owners and then culminate with Metra today.



What is Metra?

Metra is the transit Authority overseeing the commuter service in the Chicagoland area. Its beginings were megar in 1977, when it was in charge of taking over service on the BNSF (BN) line and the three Union Pacific (Former Chicago Northwestern) lines. Metra contracted with the host railroads to operate the service as it had always been operated, however they were in charge if securing funds that would offset the losses that the railroads were incurring.

Metra became a true railroad and not just a transportation authority in 1980 when the Milwaukee Road and the Rock Island both went bankrupt and their commuter service was taken over by Metra, but more about that in those lines sections. The Metra name came about replacing the RTA as the agency began operations. METRA is a combination of METropolitation RAil..

CNW Commuter

Typical 1960s rush hour CNW commuter

Typical 1960s rush hour CNW commuter

Metra Clubcar

The Club car on the UP North line in 2010

The Club car on the UP North line in 2010

Union Pacific Lines

The UP took over the Chicago &Northwestern(CNW) in 1995 and assumed all commuter contracts at that time. The CNW started commuter service over the three lines in the 1860 and is the only railroad operating three commuter lines in Chicago. It is also one of only two railroads that contracts with Metra for crews(the Burlington Northern/BNSF being the other).

The Chicago and North Western was one of the railroads that was watching the Burlington Route as they started to put their first bi levels into service in 1951. Liking what they saw, the CNW ordered enough bi levels to equip their entire fleet as the fleet had not been equipped since the 1920s with some coaches from the 1880s still in service. By 1955 the first Bi levels were in service and the CNW pioneered the cab car, allowing push pull operation.

Push- Pull is the action of pulling the train in one direction and Pulling in the other direction. the city In Chicago commuter service the engine pulls out of Chicago and pushes into the city. This was the for the simple fact that pushing the train into the stations meant that the engines were further from the station concourses and this the exhaust was not pouring into the buildings but up through vents onto the street.

Unlike other railroads that used single level cars on their long distance trains, the CNW opted to used redesigned bi levels for long distance travel. They were designed very similar to the commuter version, except that they carried fewer people per car for more comfortable ride. When the 400's were taken out of service the cars were reconfingured to handke

Bilevels are now on pretty much every commuter system in the world, they are built by many different manufacturers, but every one of them can trace their roots back to the Burlington Route, CNW, Budd Co, and Pullman Standard. To read more about the Burlington Routes Budd bi-levels read the Chicago to Aurora section on of this hub to read about their contribution to the bi-level design.

The CNW operated two bar cars on the North and Northwest routes. These cars were very popular and were operated in rush hour. When the CNW turned over the operations to the RTA then Metra, the cars were still operated and very popular, however times were tough and Metra had to cut costs, two private clubs took over the cars are operating them on the trains.The cars are in White and brown RTA color schems and adda touch of class to a string of silver.

Three of the first Bi levels are preserved at the Illinois Railway Museum. They are operated in push-pull fashion along with a cnw F unit or a Burlington Northern E unit.

UP-North to Kenosha WI

The North route is operated over the Chicago-Milwaukee route of the CNW, the service it self operates as far north as Kenosha WI, the only Metra line that actually operates outside the state of Illinois. The line runs through the upscale suburbs of Evanston and Winnetka the latter known for being the location of the movie Home Alone. The "UP North" line as it is currently known, was in in competition for commuters from the Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee interurban railway, which paralleled the line. The interurban seized operations in Jan 1963.

UP-Northwest to Harvard (McHenry)

The UP Northwest Line is the longest of the Metra lines at 63 miles from Chicago. This line runs through Des Plaines and Arlington Heights. At Crystal Lake a branch goes north to McHenry, but went as far as Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. It was cut back as there was not that much business north of McHenry, only weekday service is offered on the branch.

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UP-West to Elburn

The Gelena and Chicago Union began operations in 1848 with commuter service extending as far as Maywood, as the suburbs grew, the commuter service was extended first to Elmhurst then West Chicago. It was moved to Geneva in the 1920s, where it remained until 2006, at that time it was extended another 10 miles to Elburn IL a new coach yard was built in to house the equipment overnight.

Milwaukee Commuter

Milwaukee Road Commuter leaving Chicago Union Station

Milwaukee Road Commuter leaving Chicago Union Station

Milwaukee District Lines

MD-North to Fox Lake

The Milwaukee North line was a Milwaukee Road operated route until 1977 when the RTA a predecessor to Metra. The Milwaukee North line operates over the Chicago to Milwaukee line as far as Roundout then heads onto the Janesville Branch to Fox Lake. This line is a heavy metra line with service 7 days a week, but is lightly used by freight as the Wisconsin Southern owns the line from Fox Lake North to Wisconsin from there. They operate only once or twice a day over the line and that is normally after the nightly rush hour.

MD-West to Elgin

Now owned by Metra to Elgin and the Iowa Chicago and Eastern Railroad or ICE west of Elgin, This line hosts an eclectic mix of Commuter, class 1 and Class 2 operations. ICE operates over the west portion of the line as far as Bensenville Yard, the former Milwaukee Yard, the CP still has a presence on the east end of the yard and operates over a freight onlt line that heads north from the west end of the yard and circles around the west part of OHare airport. The line's operations haven't changed all that much except more schedules. The east end of the line from Chicago to Franklin Park also hosts Metra Trains from the North Central Service NCS.

There were a couple Milwaukee bi-levels that were outfited with a refreshment area in the vestibule and were operated during rush hours. This idea stemed from the CNW cars discussed above, but they were standS offering coffee and refreshment.

North Central Service to Antioch

The North Central Service was the first new service start up in 70 years. It is also the first time since the SOO LINE ended its passenger service in the late 1960s that there was passenger trains plying these rails.

The NCS operates over the MD West line as far as Franklin Park then (former Wisconsin Central) as far as Antioch Il. New stations were built at every town along the line, it is also the first time that O Hare International Airport is connected to the metra system.

There are 11 trains each way on the weekdays, with no weekend service. The NCS is proof that the Chicagoland region is growning slowly but surely.

CBQ Suburban

Typical Burlington Commuter train of the late 1950s to early 1960s

Typical Burlington Commuter train of the late 1950s to early 1960s

BNSF to Aurora

The Chicago Burlington & Quincy began commuter service the same year that they reached Chicago over their own line, through La Grange, Downers Grove, and Naperville. The first service ran as far as Downers Grove In 1864 with expansion quickly there after to Aurora. The service was first offered with 4-4-0 American type locomotives and wooden coaches and the running times would be greater than two hours.

The Burlington was a very innovative railroad, they designed the dome car, and also the bi-level commuter car. Union Station charges a per car charge for use of their platforms, As the suburbs grew in the early and mid 20th century, there were more people moving out of the city and then commuting back in, the trains grew longer and the charges were higher. Also the platforms at the suburban stations are only the length for eight coaches. The Burlington and the Budd company designed the first bi-level coaches and the first were delivered in 1950. Car number 700 started revenue service in late 1950. The other railroads had been watching and by 1955 the Chicago North Western and the Milwaukee Road had bilevel coaches operating in most rush hour service trains.

The metra trains on this line are crewed by the BN and now BNSF crews. This line is by far the busiest with 62 inbound and 62 outbound weekday trains jocking for positions with eight Amtrak trains and counless BNSF freights and transfers. The weekends are not quite as busy but 16 bound trips on Saturday and eight round trips on Sundays is proving to be quite a challenge for the BNSF dispatchers in Ft Worth Texas.

The service has been expanded over the years. The biggest changes on the line is the service on Saturday, there are now express trains operating now where in the past it was always all stop locals. The other addition is the adding of an 11:30 departure from both Chicago and Aurora, this addition is a departure from the Historic "lunch time break" that the Burlington had for its crews. With more than 124 commuter trains operating from 4:30am to 2am, there is plenty of options to choose from.

Expansion will be hard on this line, even though it is triple tracked bi directional signaled rail line with 70 mph for passenger trains, there is little room for more.

The Pug

The Pug as the one round trip 3 car train from Joliet was known, heads out of Union station.

The Pug as the one round trip 3 car train from Joliet was known, heads out of Union station.

Metra Heritage to Joliet

This line is a former Gulf Mobile and Ohio route from St Louis to Chicago The commuter portion operates from Joliet to Chicago through Willow Springs and Lemont. This is one of two routes that begin and ends between these two cities, the other being the Rock Island. The GM&O operated but one train each way per day, today's service over the line is little more than that with three trains in each direction. Weekend service is not offered on this line, however with the Rock Island line not far away offering weekend service

Rock Island commuter

Rock island commuter.

Rock island commuter.

Rock Island Line to Joliet

The Rock Island service was by far the most eclectic service in the Chicago area. Where else could you find F7s,E6s,E9s from EMD, RS1s from Alco, Fairbank Morse locomotives, an even a couple of BL2s? Only on the Rock. They even had two E6Bs that were built for the Rocky Mountain Rocket. These units were operated as the second units, but moved to the Lead in Limon for the Colorado Springs leg of the journey. Oh and to add a little color a few UP E9s were purchased in the late sixties to augment the growing Fleet.

It was also the only road to operate both Budd and Pullman Standard Gallery cars. When the P-S cars were on the property it allowed the 1920s vintage "Capone" heavy weights to finally be retired, these cars had been operating for over 40 years and were in need of a long retirement.

The line is the Rock Island's entry into Chicago from the southwest, The commuter service operates as far as Joliet and operates seven days a week, with the most commuter traffic on the weekdays. The line shares Joliet Union Station with Heritage Corridor trains as well as Amtrak. The HC trains use the Rock Island District coach yard for the night.

Wabash commuter service

Norfolk and Western merged with the Wabash in 1964 and continued their commuter service. Here is a Post merger version of the commuter train to Orland Park.

Norfolk and Western merged with the Wabash in 1964 and continued their commuter service. Here is a Post merger version of the commuter train to Orland Park.

South West Service to Manhattan

The Wabash Railroad was not a very big player in the Chicago commuter scene but they did have an interesting operation. The Wabash's division point was in Decatur Illinois, so it chose to operate it's commuter train from there, leaving at about 2:45 am and reaching the edge of the Chicagoland suburbs at 6am with an arrival time at 7:15 am. The afternoon run left at about 5pm reaching Decatur at 10:15pm.

Metra took over from the Norfolk and Western in 1980 (who merged with the Wabash in 1964) and cut the service back to Orland Park. They upgraded the equipment as well as added more trains to the service. In 2006, Metra extended the line to Manhattan, which will be the final end of track as the N&W removed the track south of there.

Metra Electric to University Park

The Illinois Central is the only electric operation in the Metra system. The line extends from Randolph Street Station to University Park, with two branches, one to South Chicago and the other to Blue Island. Service is seven days a week.

The IC operated commuter trains we steam powered until 1926 when the IC changed from steam to Electric for its commuter operations. There were a number of reasons for this, the first was that the IC was a very busy line and with the lack of space along the Chicago waterfront, there was a need to move trains in and out quickly. Steam trains take a lot of time to turn and ready for the next trip, Electrics on the other hand need no turning, all they need is the operator to walk to the opposite end and throttle up, no turning necessary.

The IC line is still one of the busiest lines today, the IC reequipped the commuter service with new electric bi-level coaches in the 1970s retiring the electric coaches from the 20s.The new cars started service in 2008 bringing a close to the orange and chocolate brown era. Some of these cars were painted Silver red and blue metra scheme for non stainless steel passenger cars.

Metra Electric

1926 electrics in operation until 1971

1926 electrics in operation until 1971

new hi liners in service 1971-2010

new hi liners in service 1971-2010

2010-current  metra electric bi levels.

2010-current metra electric bi levels.

Whats Next

What's next for Metra? Well after the expansion in the last 15 years, as well as the new equipment there is still room for upgrades, Adding new service on existing routes requires more equipment, and Metra had sold off a number of former CB&Q, CNW, Milwaukee and Rock Island cars that were surplus, Metra was forced to reacquire a handful of Pullman bi-levels of CNW vintage to expand services on all routes.

Nippon-Sharyo is the current builder of Metra commuter cars and is in the process of building coaches and cab cars to replace the older Gallery cars from, Budd, Pullman Standard and Amrail. There are only a handful of the CNW and Rock Island Pullman coaches still in service, many have been sold to other agencies.

Metra is in the process of rebuilding the F40 fleet as the first ones came on line in 1977, starting to replace the Es and Fs that had been pulling commuters for four decades. However one railroad or line who had rebuilt the E units in 1973 kept them rolling for another 20 years. The E units of the Burlington Northern, the last intact large fleet of Es left. And this author was lucky enough to see them in action.

Maybe we will see a north south route one of these days. There has been discussions of operasting over the EJ&E but with the CN take over there is more traffic to work around on the largely single track route, so we well just to wait on that.

As for now, Metra is on an upward swing, moving more commuters as ever before, the upgrades in physical plant are proving to be an asset, and programs laid out by the freight railroads, such as C.R.E.A.T.E. to help trains circumvent Chicago, will ultimately allow Metra to operate more efficiently as well.

Map of Metra services

Route Map of Metra Commuter Service. Map color coded by original railroad.

Route Map of Metra Commuter Service. Map color coded by original railroad.

© 2013 Clayton Hartford


Deborah Neyens from Iowa on February 02, 2014:

Interesting. I used to live in Chicago and would take the Metra to visit my friends in the suburbs. I rode that north line to Fox Lake many times.

Clayton Hartford (author) from Alger WA on November 19, 2013:

Thank you for the kind words Alpha. I too was born and raised in Chicago, actually in La Grange. I was a regular by the tracks both the BN/IHB but also the CNW/UP and Milwaukee/soo/CP. I have not been back in 15 years can't wait to get back to see the changes.

Kevin W from Texas on November 19, 2013:

Very informative hub bn9900, I was born and raised in Chicago, it's the greatest city in the world & I'm extremely familiar with the commuter system. Thumbs up on your hub.

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