Thursday, October 21, 2010

The (adorable) Skokie Swift


I've become fascinated with the oddball of the Chicago Transit Authority's light rail system, the Yellow Line - aka the Skokie Swift. It's such a mismatched, out of place beast that I have to stop and stare every time I come across it.


The trains are just two cars, two lonely little tiny cars rolling along all by themselves like lost sheep, wandering innocently past suburban lawns and parks and back yards and arterial roads. They're so cute! You just want to pinch their little metal cheeks.




Whether it's running at grade between 1950s backyards, flying above a river on a trestle, or roaring through a forest in a below-grade cut, the Yellow Line just leaves me wondering: what is it doing here? What are grungy CTA cars doing out in the June Cleaver suburbia of Skokie? Did they get lost or something??

The Swift is a relic of an aborted idea, back when people and governments hadn't quite completely given up on mass transit. Surely light rail could find a way to work in the suburbs, right? And so this line was activated in the 1960s on 5 miles of semi-abandoned right-of-way that had passed from a defunct private transit company to the CTA. The Skokie Swift served a test bed to see what was possible out in the new suburban frontier. The notion was that a really fast, no-stops, no-frills run from a suburban center into Chicago could be a viable transit model.


And it worked pretty well - better than expected, in fact. Ridership was higher than predicted, enough so that the train still runs every 10 minutes or so daily. But it wasn't such a success that the model was replicated; the Swift remains a one-of-a-kind line in Chicago, rivaled only by the Purple Line for its strange intrusion into suburban woodlands.


Part of the Skokie Swift's fascination is that so many relics of the past remain in place. Much of the western half of the line still passes under the catenary poles that once held overhead wires, used when the line was electrified from above. The lines were taken down when full third-rail service was added in 2004, but the poles remain.

And that little stub at right is the remains of a one-time station platform, now used only as a housing for electrical boxes.


The right of way is also quasi-industrial, lined with huge power lines that give the line a sort of apocalyptic feeling. The train is taking you to wherever it is that all these electrical lines go, and when you get to that ominous, distant place, who knows what fate might befall you? Maybe you'll be made into electricity, too.


When you finally do reach the end of the line, it's a surreal spot - a seemingly random point, surrounded by parking lots and light suburban commercial buildings, not enough to constitute a downtown or village center, or even much of a place at all.


This humble bumper marks the very end of the CTA rail system.

Across the street, the power lines continue their relentless march northward, beckoning for an expansion of the line. That expansion is in the planning phases at present.


The other part of the fascination is, as mentioned, how strangely out of place the Swift is. It's a tiny train running through huge places, running on towering trestles and over hugely busy roads like McCormick. CTA cars mostly run in cramped quarters in the city - tight subway tunnels, or squeezed between residential streets with houses so close that residents can almost touch the track structure from their windows. Their compact, no-nonsense design reflects this, and looks very strange in all the open space of Skokie.


And so the trains just look sort of... lost. I want to call out to the outbound ones: "What's the matter, little fella? You lost? You looking for Chicago? You wanna go the other way!"


Carlene said...

LOL! I ride this train every day. Have you? If not, you should, just for the experience. June Cleaver doesn't live here anymore.


Jennifer said...

I once got on a two-car South Shore train just after sundown at Dunes Park. It was very similar to what you just described, I think.

Anna B said...

Thanks so much for posting these photos! I never thought to actually take and/or investigate that little Yellow line... will definitely have to do next time I'm in town.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully photographed and written. Excellent job

Anonymous said...

The Yellow Line's the greatest Time Machine route. You got your 90s, 50s, a beautiful apocalyptic wasteland and the modern day Howard Station.

Even though I hate the CTA with a passion, the Yellow Line is the most interesting line and alongside the Loop, is probably what makes the CTA a unique oddity.

Anonymous said...

Wonderfully photographed and written--and funny too. And thanks so much overall for writing this've opened my eyes to some really cool sights in this fair city!

Anonymous said...

Seeing the train cruise overhead while I'm on McCormick always surprises me. I feel like I'm in one of the model train sets I used to play with when I was a child.

David said...

I wonder how it will change once the Oakton station finally opens.

It's interesting to imagine how Skokie would have developed if the depression hadn't come along - if it would have been more like the rest of the city, full of three flats and courtyard buildings (there are a lot of 20's apartment buildings lurking between the ranches, much like SW Evanston)...

Anonymous said...

I like this essay, but it fails to mention the most important reason for the existence of the yellow line: The CTA had a service barn in Skokie accessible by private railroad tracks. When the railroad went out of business, the CTA had to buy the line in order to continue to use the facility.

Instructor said...

The Swift is the last remnant of the Chicago, Northshore & Milwaukee RR, which went under in 1963. My father told me of standing on the Wilson El Platform when the Northshore express to Milwaukee would blast through. Here is a site with scads of info, including pictures of many of the stations, including the current Swift station at Dempster. As to its being nowhere, at least it has a Starbucks!

Anonymous said...

Great essay, but it's heavy rail, not light rail.

John said...

Chicago doesn't have a light rail system. The "L," including the Skokie Swift Yellow Line, is all heavy rail.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

Anonymous said...

Great recognition for the Yellow Line.

One correction: The CTA 'L' is a heavy rail system.

Elizabeth said...

Oh man, this was the best story about a transit line I've ever read. Love the apocalyptic aspects, and the strange arrival in a nowhere land. Poor little CTA cars, so far away from home!

Anonymous said...

At one time the Skokie Swift trains consisted of a single car. The North Shore line had a few one car trains also.

Anonymous said...

I was born in St Francis hospital in Evanston in 1956 and raised in Skokie on Conrad st. Conrad goes from Edens expwy to the Skokie Swift, jumps the tracks and continues towards lake Michigan. This was my back yard as a boy. I have ridden the defunct chicago nortwestern trains to Libertyville north of the Skokie Swift station. I remember the Swift when it first started. Used to run just single cars and a three car train nicknamed the "Doodlebug" I used to ride the Swift as a boy to the end and back several times in a day. (Also used to ride the cable cars in San Francisco as a boy). I also used to ride in the frieght trains next to the swift, put pennies, dimes,quarters on the tracks of the frieghts, and the swift so they would get crushed flat. I remeber Farleys candys about three blocks away fro the swift station, (right before oakton st.) We would yell for candy as the swift would thunder by. I remember hanging under the train trestle by McCormick st, screaming and yelling as loud as we could as the train barelled overhead. Great memories I will never, ever forget. I am still a big 55 year old kid living in southern Oregon, playing by the trains.