Chicago trains, intentional and unintentional

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Thursday, February 16, 2017

Visiting Chicago is always an invigorating experience. This week was no exception. Associate Editor David Lassen, who edited our special edition, “Chicago: America’s Railroad Capital,” and who also produced the companion video of the same name, and I were in Chicago for two purposes: First, we were guests on a talk show-style segment about Windy City railroads with public television’s “Chicago Tonight” program; it will air next week. Second, we gave a presentation to an industry and friends group, the Sandhouse Gang. For this group, we discussed points from the two new products about Chicago’s importance as a railroad center, showed a short clip from the documentary video, and provided insights into how we distilled Chicago into 100-pages and 60-minutes of content, respectively.

Of course, along the way, with it being Chicago, we naturally ran into a few trains. Some of the interaction was intentional, and some just happened. After all, trains are part of the daily backdrop that is Chicago. We paused in the Deerfield suburb on Canadian Pacific’s busy Chicago-Milwaukee-Minneapolis main line to photograph a few freights, the westbound Empire Builder, and a couple of Metra commuter trains, including one with those venerable and now much beloved F40s. The killer of E8s and E9s, FP7s, and other classic streamliners, the once ubiquitous F40 is now itself a relic, an iconic shape of the 1970s with lasting good looks. Those were the intentional trains.

The unintentional came at the place where we spent the night, the Hampton Inn-Loyola, where I wrote these words from room 233. That room looks across an empty courtyard about 100 feet directly into the platform of the L-station in this university neighborhood. Through rooftop air conditioning units, I watched as commuters scurried to board trains that seem to come and go as often as they did in that classic comedic Chicago-centric movie, the Blues Brothers. Jake and Elwood would feel right at home here with trains right outside their window, although unlike John Belushi and Dan Akroyd, they did not keep me up all night.  The show on the CTA was a delightful blend of trains noisily rumbling over crumbling concrete pedestals, rolling through an urban scene complete with smokestacks, fire escapes, church steeples, and jet planes on final approach to O’Hare.

My quick visit to Chicago ended as it should with a visit to Chicago Union Station, where I bought a one-way ticket back home to Milwaukee. After a few fleeting moments in the Great Hall, I was off on the Hiawatha, taking in the scenery of suburban Chicago as it gave way to rural Wisconsin and then Milwaukee. 

As the product of a small southern town, I have always loved traveling to Chicago. It was once exotic and rare. It’s still the kind of experience that makes you step just a little higher, a little faster because Chicago is the beating heart of American railroading. Twenty-five years after my first visit, it is still all that, and now that I’ve come to know little bits and pieces of this city and its railroads, it is a lot more. 


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