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Chicago’s iconic ‘L’ train system is turning 125 years old

To celebrate, the CTA is pressing two historic trains into service tomorrow

Flickr Creative Commons/David Harmantas

This week, Chicagoans will have listened to the instantly recognizable screech and rumble of the city’s overhead trains—as well as groans over the occasional delay—for exactly 125 years. In honor of its quasquicentennial birthday, the citywide network that gives Chicago’s Loop its name is offering rides on a pair of throw-back trains. Designed to literally rise above street level congestion, Chicago’s ‘L’ (not the ‘El’) is the second oldest above-street network in the United States and has a proud history of innovation.

On June 6, 1892, the first train traveled from 39th Street to Congress Street on tracks that would eventually become the city’s Green Line. Predated only by New York’s early elevated line, this novel way of travel quickly caught on across the Windy City. In the subsequent years, private companies extended the route and added additional lines. In the process, the L acted as a democratizing agent that connected neighborhoods and mixed Chicagoans of differing backgrounds and socioeconomic classes.

The Lake Street Elevated Railroad circa 1894.
Chicago Transit Authority

In the late 1890’s the gas-lit cars and coal-fired steam engines were electrified, drawing on technology demonstrated by the “intramural railway” at the Chicago World’s Fair. One of the most innovative features came with the elimination of the dedicated engine car. Instead, motor and braking units were evenly distributed across multiple cars and controlled by a single operator.

The result not only increased train performance, but eliminated the need to rotate the trains in roundhouses at the end of the line. This basic idea became the gold standard for urban metro rail and has been adopted across the globe, Graham Garfield of the CTA explained to the Chicago Tribune.

Over the decades, the ‘L’ was further expanded and upgraded but also faced challenges—even calls for its removal. After barely weathering the Great Depression and severe wartime material shortages, the struggling private firms that built and operated the various elevated lines and surface streetcars were consolidated under the umbrella of the Chicago Transit Authority in 1947.

Curbed Chicago Flickr pool/Anderson

Under the CTA’s stewardship, Chicago’s famous ‘L’ has not only survived the past 70 years, it has thrived. The system continues to be the nation’s second busiest mass transit rail network and is supercharging new real estate development in places like the Milwaukee Avenue corridor flanking the Blue Line.

To commemorate tomorrow’s 125 year milestone, the Chicago Transit Authority is dusting off a couple of classic trains from its historical collection for a few spins around the Loop. Starting at noon, a 1923 model will orbit the city’s central business district for 90 minutes. At 1:30, a 1970’s era 2400-series ‘L’ train will make the rounds until 3:00 PM. The vintage cars will make stops at all Loop stations and will charge standard ride fares.