Railfanning in Chicago Land

By now everyone reading my blog is aware of the fact that Brad and I spent a few days in Chicago. What most readers probably do not know is the fact that Chicago is the most important rail hub in the USA. 

Six Class 1 freight railroads go through the city:

BNSF (Burlington Norther Santa Fe Railway)

CN (Canadian National)

CP (Canadian Pacific)

CSX (CSX Transportation)

NS (Norfolk Southern Railroad)

UP (Union Pacific Railroad)

There are two "belt lines": the Belt Railway of Chicago and the Indiana Harbor Belt. Furthermore there are 12 short lines and terminal railroads operating in Chicago.

And then there are the long distance passenger and commuter railroads: Metra, Amtrak and the South Shore Line.

According to the Illinois Department of Transportation around 1300 passenger and freight trains run through the Chicago area every day. This makes for incredible congestion and it routinely may take a freight train up to 30 hours to transit through the Chicago area. 

So for a railroad fan like me this makes for great train watching opportunities. Fortunately most of the train watching places can be reached via Metra, the Chicago area commuter railroad. I decided to spend the better part of a day in Hinsdale on the Metra BNSF line.

 Metra Commuter Rail System Map     

Metra Commuter Rail System Map     

From Chicago Union Station it is a roughly 45 minute ride on Metra to Hinsdale on the three track mainline owned by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, running from Chicago to Aurora. Service is quite frequent. Even night owls can get in some Chicago nightlife and return home to the 'burbs: The last train leaves for Aurora at 12:40 am.

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The equipment on this line seems ancient. Metra runs double decker cars in push-pull mode with the cab control car usually on the Chicago bound end of the train. The car I was riding in was number 749, built in 1955 and supposedly refurbished in 1973. Apparently this car was already part of the BNSF fleet when that railroad still ran commuter service around Chicago. I must confess that I am somewhat confused: There are BNSF logos on the car, but a small plaque at the bottom left by the door states that it is owned by Metra.

 Metra double deck car 749, built by Budd in 1955.

Metra double deck car 749, built by Budd in 1955.

The car's ride quality is awful. The interior is woefully behind the times. No passenger information displays at all. No creature comforts. Vinyl bench seats. The air conditioning barely worked. All in all a very sad commentary on the state of US commuter railroads. 

 Interior of car 749

Interior of car 749

 Another interior shot of car 749 (Sorry about the photo quality!)

Another interior shot of car 749 (Sorry about the photo quality!)

 Car 761 built by Budd in 1965 on a Metra "Express" train going through Hinsdale station.

Car 761 built by Budd in 1965 on a Metra "Express" train going through Hinsdale station.

 The cab control car on the "Express" in the photo above.

The cab control car on the "Express" in the photo above.

The locomotives used on the BNSF line are usually FH40PHM-2 diesel electric locomotives. Locomotive 198, seen in the above photograph, was manufactured by General Motor's Electro Motive Division in 1992. They nominally put out 3200 horsepower (2386 kW) and are of a B-B (Bo' Bo') truck design, with an electric motor on each axle. These locomotives are a variant of the, until fairly recently, ubiquitous Amtrak F40PH. 

This is the three track mainline owned by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway running from Chicago to Aurora. The track is in terrible shape. The locomotives and cars "dance" down the track. A lot of the cross ties have deteriorated to an alarming level. Loose spikes are commonplace. More worry some is that spikes were completely missing in places, as well as some rail anchors. 

 The alarming state of BNSF track.

The alarming state of BNSF track.

 The "rear end"of a Norfolk Southern Railroad unit oil train going through Hinsdale.

The "rear end"of a Norfolk Southern Railroad unit oil train going through Hinsdale.

 Highlands is within a short walk of the Hinsdale Metra station. Only a few Metra trains stop at Highlands, mostly during rush hour.

Highlands is within a short walk of the Hinsdale Metra station. Only a few Metra trains stop at Highlands, mostly during rush hour.

 A BNSF coal unit train going through the Hinsdale Metra station. Leading is a ES44AC locomotive built by General Electric.

A BNSF coal unit train going through the Hinsdale Metra station. Leading is a ES44AC locomotive built by General Electric.

All in all I had an enjoyable few hours. Even the weather held up. Following is a short video of my visit to Hinsdale:

 

All photos and video by Ralf Meier using a Sony a7r (ILCE-7RM2) 4 K Video