A Rich Rail Transit History

Written by Norman Carlson
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The 5:00 p.m. Electroliner flying past the Briergate station in Highland Park, Ill., at 80-plus mph on its non-stop 48-mile run from Howard Street, Chicago, to Kenosha, Wisc., July 26, 1960. Norman Carlson archive

RAILWAY AGE SEPTEMBER 2022 ISSUE: In his on line article Happy 75th, CTA!, Contributing Editor David Peter Alan makes reference to CTA’s Skokie Swift, now known as the Yellow Line, as the last remnant of the Chicago North Shore & Milwaukee Railroad. Also, there were the South Shore Line, now owned and operated by the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (NICTD), and the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin. Collectively they were known as Chicago’s Big Three electric interurban railways. 

For those who remember the North Shore, it is hard to accept that it has been 60 years since the last trains pulled into their terminals around 3:00 a.m. on Jan. 21, 1963. Marketing itself as The Road of Service, the North Shore operating culture was speed and efficiency. The balancing speed of the trains operating as Milwaukee Limiteds was between 80 and 83 mph. Unlike any other interurban, dining service was offered from shortly after Milwaukee service began in 1908 until abandonment in 1963. 

Their trainmen’s philosophy was “get them off, get them on, get out of town.” Coming into a station was a combination of smells and sounds: ozone from the traction motors, hot lubricating oil, squealing brake shoes on steel wheels, thumping air compressors, grinding gears on the traction motors, step traps slammed against the doors and the exhausts of the air brakes. Passengers got off and on quickly. Then it was two bells and the slamming of the traps hitting the floor as the train accelerated. Station stops were a matter of seconds. On the North Shore, there were no speed limits, only speed restrictions. Motormen ran trains with the controller “on the brass” (full parallel), with heavy service applications for braking. When asked how can you run 85 mph with trolley poles, reportedly, the railroad responded no one told us we couldn’t do it. 

Adding to North Shore’s legend were the literally millions of Navy and Army recruits that rode the railroad. The railway served Naval Station Great Lakes and Fort Sheridan. And then there were the Electroliners, which entered service early in 1941. 

These two four-unit articulated streamlined trainsets made five of the 17 daily limited train trips in each direction between Milwaukee and Chicago. They were famous for their Electroburgers, a well-seasoned beef patty marinated in Worcestershire sauce, grilled on an induction plate that gave them a distinctive taste. 

Served with chips and an adult beverage, they were a delightful Friday dinner along with a train ride to Milwaukee. Of course, on the return trip the bar was open. Speaking of the bar being open, in North Shore’s final days, the drinking age in Illinois was 21 while in Wisconsin it was 18. As far as the bartender was concerned, the train was in Wisconsin for its entire trip. 

For the military, there were weekend specials from the military bases on Saturdays and Sundays. Fleets of trains would make morning departures to Chicago with a smaller number of trains to Milwaukee in addition to the regular service. The extra trains would return in the late afternoon and well into the evenings. While known as military specials on the railroad, their more common name for the Great Lakes trains was Swabby Specials. This in part explains why North Shore’s legend extended far beyond its service territory. 

On weekdays from 5:00 to 5:15 p.m., there was a departure every three minutes from downtown Chicago. This is a Mundelein express train that ran 15 minutes ahead of the 5:00 p.m. Electroliner. The principal task of this train was to get out of the Electronliner’s way! 

Over the decades, there was considerable commonality between the Big Three and the Chicago Rapid Transit Company (CRT) and later CTA. All three interurbans reached downtown Chicago on trackage rights, North Shore and CA&E on CRT, later CTA, while the South Shore used Illinois Central and now Metra Electric. At one time, the Big Three and CRT along with electric and gas utilities in Northern Illinois and throughout Indiana were entities within a corporate conglomerate controlled by Samuel Insull. Incredibly, CRT was a subsidiary of Commonwealth Edison (CE), the electric utility serving most of the Chicago region. 

Chicago’s local transit systems, including the street railways, were financially challenged during most of their existence. This was of great concern to Sam Insull. The so-called “traction load,” the electrical demand of electrified railways, was the base load that provided economic justification for the investment in significant expansion of Insull’s companies electric generating capacity in Illinois and Indiana. To protect this investment, Insull became involved in the attempts to financially organize Chicago’s rapid transit and interurban companies as early as 1901. Insull’s Empire collapsed in the Great Depression. North Shore did not emerge from bankruptcy until 1946.

The Post-World War II expansion of automobile ownership and limited access highways was the mortal blow for the CA&E and North Shore. Neither of these railways recovered their cost of capital. New rolling stock and infrastructure investments were out of the question. The South Shore Line survived as one of the last interurbans in America due to its significant freight traffic and being located in the heavily industrialized area of Northwest Indiana. CA&E’s passenger service was abruptly suspended shortly after noon on July 3, 1957, stranding passengers at their destination. As noted, the North Shore Line was abandoned in 1963. 

Recognition of the commuter railroads’ financial crisis began in the 1950s with the Long Island Rail Road and quickly spread throughout the East Coast. CA&E’s abandonment caught the attention of a few people in Washington, D.C. Perhaps because of its relationship with the military, North Shore’s abandonment caught the attention of many more people
in Washington.

In 1963, the Chicago Transit Authority proposed a plan to provide nonstop high-speed shuttle service between the main line rapid transit station at Howard Street at the north city limit of Chicago and Dempster Street in Skokie, a distance of five miles. CTA, working with the Village of Skokie, applied for a federal grant to pay two-thirds of the cost for a two-year demonstration project. CTA and the Village split the remaining one-third of the cost. Service began in April 1964 and was a resounding success. Originally named Skokie Swift, it is now CTA’s Yellow Line. The late George Krambles (1915-1999), who retired as CTA’s Executive Director, was the project director. The North Shore operated this segment of railroad for 37 years, while CTA has run it for 58 years and counting. 

In George’s words; “Although it remains one of the world’s smallest rapid transit routes, Skokie Swift’s success encouraged the creation of local, state and federal programs to assist transit capital projects elsewhere. It helped set the pattern for the many new-start rail systems, becoming really the first of the modern light rail transit lines without ever knowing the name!” 

Norman Carlson

Norman Carlson was appointed to the Metra Board of Directors in April 2013 by the Chairman of the Lake County Board, was elected Chair in October 2016, and Vice Chair in September 2020. He spent 34 years with Arthur Andersen Co. as the North American Rail Industry Head in 1985 and the Worldwide Managing Partner of the Transportation Practice in 1990. In 2000 he formed Carlson Consulting International. He is member of the Business Advisory Committee to the Transportation Center at Northwestern University, advisor to the City of Lake Forest on transportation matters, and managing editor of First & Fastest, a publication on the history and current operations of rail passenger service in Chicago. 

ADDITIONAL READING: Hub of the Midwest

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