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Doing the "Harlem Shuffle" ... in Chicagoland

Posted by David Lassen
on Thursday, March 02, 2017

1. An inbound Metra BNSF train approaches the LaVergne station in Berwyn as a stack train appears in the distance. (All photos by David Lassen)
2. As the stack train nears LaVergne, the eastbound California Zephyr, running early, approaches on the center track.
3. The Zephyr catches up to the stack train ...
4. ... then overtakes the stack train, which is slowing as it approaches Cicero Yard.
5. A turn to the east as the Zephyr passes finds that a train is passing over on CN's former Illinois Central line crossing the BNSF.
6. By the time the Zephyr passes, it's only possible to get an obstructed view of the CSX power on the train on the CN.
7. In Riverside, the westbound California Zephyr overtakes another BNSF stack train.
8. A shot from the parking lot for the Riverside Metra station puts the community's distinctive water tower in the background as the stack train passes.
9. A few miles north from the BNSF main line, a westbound UP train prepares to pass through the Oak Park Metra station.
10. The biggest drawback of the Oak Park location: It's really only good for shots in one direction.
11. A few miles further north from Oak Park along Harlem Avenue is the Metra mainline used by the Canadian Pacific. Eastbound moves come through this S curve as they approach the station at Elmwood Park.
A few weeks ago, when our part of the upper Midwest enjoyed a Sunday with temperatures above freezing and that big yellow orb in the sky, I jumped in the car for some railfanning. With an even nicer weekend in the offing — we're talking 47 and partly cloudy on Saturday, and 59 (although cloudy) on Sunday — it seems like a good time to discuss the excellent single-day railfan plan I mapped out that day. Call it the Harlem Avenue shuffle:  With roughly 13 miles of driving — most of it on Harlem Avenue, state highway 43, you could hit five pretty good spots on three different main lines.

I only did part of this that day, but it was a pretty fruitful day nonetheless.

The first stop on this little tour is LaVergne, the Metra station at the east end of the community of Berwyn and the west end of BNSF’s Cicero Yard. LaVergne, about a mile east of Harlem Avenue on Windsor Avenue, is of particular interest because a CN (former Illinois Central) route crosses over the BNSF tracks just east of the station platform. There’s always the possibility of an over-and-under shot; we had the good fortune to get one when we were shooting the Chicago: America’s Railroad Capital DVD.

During my February visit, the highlight at LaVergne was a flurry of activity a little after 1 p.m., starting with an inbound Metra train. As it passed (photo 1), there was already another train visible. That turned out to be an inbound stack train (2), and as it approached, the eastbound California Zephyr — running about 40 minutes early — was already visible, setting the stage for a little suspense: Would the Zephyr catch the freight before my location, or after. The answer turned out to be just before (3, 4).

One tiny bit of frustration, though: As I focused on the pass, I heard something behind me, and when I turned as the Zephyr passed, I discovered that a train had arrived on CN — just slightly too soon to get the power in an over-and-under shot (5). It wasn’t until the Zephyr had gone by that I was able to see, through quite a bit of clutter, the CSX unit on the point. (6).

Shortly thereafter, I headed west on Windsor,crossed Harlem, and went another mile west on Quincy Avenue to Riverside, the village laid out by Calvert Vaux and Fredrick Law Olmstead, the landscape architect responsible for New York’s Central Park and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, among other notable accomplishments. Riverside, said to be one of the nation’s first planned communities, has a very nice brick passenger station, with a unique water tower nearby. On this visit, I finally figured out some good locations to work the water tower into photos, though I didn’t fully succeed with these efforts.

First, there was yet another Zephyr-passing-stack train shot, this time with the outbound Zephyr. I wasn’t quite as close this time, so the photo is a little soft (7). Had I stayed on the station platform (like the guy in the right of the photo), I would have been better positioned for the pass, but I was after the water-tower shot (8).

Shortly thereafter, I went back to Harlem and made the four-mile drive north to the Oak Park Metra station on the UP West line, for a personal favorite photo, looking east from the platform toward the Chicago skyline (9). The only drawback with Oak Park is that the shot for trains coming from the west isn’t all that great (10).

That was where I cut things off on Sunday, but to extend the day, you can go 1.4 miles west on Lake Avenue to get to the River Forest Metra station, a location I covered in a blog post in January (http://cs.trains.com/trn/b/staff/archive/2017/01/05/in-chicago-a-reminder-that-change-is-constant.aspx). You also go north for another three miles on Harlem Avenue, then make a short jog to the west and end up at Elmwood Park, a stop on the Milwaukee West line (North Central Service trains also pass through) as well as Canadian Pacific’s route east from Bensenville Yard. There’s a shot looking east at Elmwood Park in our “Metra Mojo” slide show from February (http://trn.trains.com/photos-videos/2017/01/metra-mojo) but here’s a photo from a year or so ago showing how it looks to the west— a shot that works best with freight trains, since Metra runs cab-car first in this direction. (11).

While I didn't visit all three spots on this trip, I have hit them all in one day.  Just once, though. Usually, at least one of those spots is so busy that I just decide to stay put.

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