Monday, May 5, 2008

A ride south on Metra

I recently had cause to take Metra all the way down to Joliet. The ride was a bit of an eye opener; on Saturday, a gray and cloudy day threatening rain, I took a second trip on part of the line with my camera.

In the wake of Robert Taylor

I don't know what historical forces shaped this train line, but what I do know is this: it rockets through the desolate neighborhoods of south Chicago at 60 miles an hour, not stopping for the first five or ten miles. When it finally does stop, it's in the Beverly neighborhood, the last bit of Chicago before the inner-ring suburbs. And then, it stops every minute. I guessed that we made a dozen stops in half an hour, and that didn't turn out to be far off the mark:

  • Brainerd - 8:04 (hee hee. Must suck to be from there when you're in grade school.)
  • 91st St - Beverly Hills - 8:06
  • 95th St - Beverly Hills - 8:08
  • 99th St - Beverly Hills - 8:10
  • 103rd St - Beverly Hills - 8:12
  • 107th St - Beverly Hills - 8:14
  • 111th St - Morgan Park - 8:16
  • 115th St - Morgan Park - 8:18
  • 119th St - 8:20
  • 123rd St - f8:22
  • Prairie Street - f8:24
  • Blue Island - Vermont St - 8:26
  • Robbins - f8:29
  • Midlothian - 8:32

    Now, I'm new to Chicago; I don't know what went down however many years ago when these stops were established. But doesn't this strike anybody else as absolute freaking overkill? This little 'burb gets more Metra stops than the entire city of Chicago does on our Union Pacific North line!

    A bit of digging online reveals that the line did indeed lose its city stops when the Red Line was extended south in 1969. Well, sucks for the south siders. I tell ya, Metra and the L are worlds apart in quality.

    But no answers as to why there's 15 stops in maybe two miles.


    The first run, from Lasalle Street to the first station stop, was far and away the most interesting part of the trip. The train flew past houses, apartments, industry, scrap yards, and vacant lots.

    South Chicago desolation

    South side scrap yard

    A long, enormous stretch of vacant land alongside the tracks attests to where the former Robert Taylor Homes housing project stood just a few years ago. Clues to its past life remain: random streetlights and fire hydrants in the middle of huge grassy lots. Crumbling parking lots that serve nothing. Electrical boxes hundreds of yards from any building. Churches surrounded by empty blocks.

    In the wake of Robert Taylor

    In the wake of Robert Taylor

    The ride also reveals a great deal of hidden infrastructure, particularly rail lines. As the two remaining tracks cross bridges, truss bridges for a half dozen more tracks remain, though their rails are long vanished and their decks covered with weeds. Abandoned embankments and even an entire elevated wye junction remain, rusting and crumbling away.

    Abandoned lines

    It's a fascinating ride, which goes by all too quickly. I'd be happy to get stuck on a train with engine troubles that would tool along this route at 10 miles an hour.

    Beverly's an interesting little hamlet on the farthest fringes of the city's south side. I took a short walk there yesterday before hopping on a return train. It's got lots of large, beautiful period revival houses from the 1920s; it's also the only place in the city of Chicago that has topography. When I return with my bicycle, I'll give it a more lengthy exploration; for now, here's the most attention-getting building that I saw, the Beverly Unitarian Church.

    The Unitarian castle

    Anonymous said...

    I find the explnanation of why Metra doesn't stop on the South Side stops because of the Red Line creation a bit curious. Metra also has a line going up north that parallels with the red and eventually purple lines yet the stops for the Metra have not been ceased. So the Rogers Park and Evanston North siders get a choice but the South Siders do not.

    David said...

    Huh? There's only a few stops in the city on most metra lines except for the IC, which has one branch exclusively in the city (for you north siders, it runs right down the middle of the street and has stations like the end of the brown line - it's also the only one with a Monday-Saturday schedule, not Monday-Friday).

    The basic reason there are no stops on the metra lines is that they are SUBURBAN commuter lines and the city was far better served by streetcars until 1960ish and there was no market for stops. The southwest and northwest sides have a fair number of stops, since they were far-flung commuter suburbs. It wouldn't surprise me if there was also legislative effort from the transit companies in the city in the 19th Century to have fewer stops, and there also might be speed issues, since most metra lines also carry freight - in fact, a lot of them are fairly new to start with, so that there might not have been any room for (or market) station in the city. Racism, as with all things in Chicago, also played a role I'm sure. Although the red line probably also stole riders from heavy rail when it opened; ridership on the then Jackson Park/Englewood branch dropped off dramatically.

    Well, that was a rant! I think it's just because I was down that way today, checking out the funky 50s stuff that has been torn down on the north side, as well as the desolation that still haunts a lot of the inner southwest side.

    David said...

    PS Rumor has it the castle in Beverly came stone by stone from Scotland or Ireland...

    Anonymous said...

    Oh, okay, that makes sense. Thanks for the rant, David. I don't know much about the Metra, I was just going by what I had heard over the years. What is weird for me is that there should be more city stops on the Metra to maybe compete with the crappy service of the CTA especially after all the derailments and maintenance issues and slowdowns the train lines in the city have been experiencing recently.

    F. Bryan said...

    David, I found your site and really enjoy it. I love the photos. I hope the next time you visit Beverly and Morgan Park you stay a little longer and take some more photos. It is a wonderful neighborhood that I believe is on the verge of being discovered because of the convenience of the Metra train stops and all of the other special qualities about the area. Before you visit be sure to check out my site all about the area at P.S. the castle was built with Indiana Limestone to look like a castle in Ireland, see my blog about the Starbucks at 103rd and Longwood Drive for all of the details!