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Transportation that built Chicago: The importance of the railroads

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Chicago was—and still is—the nation’s supreme rail transit hub

Curbed Chicago Flickr Pool/GXM

While a strategic position between the Great Lakes and the navigable system of waterways feeding into the Mississippi River might have been the “why” behind Chicago’s rise, the invention of the rail was certainly the “how.” At the height of passenger travel and rail-based commerce, Chicago is the single most important hub for the United States—linking East to West and North to South.

While the heyday of rail may be behind us, this mode of transportation is an inseparable part of Chicago’s DNA and will continue to play a prominent role in its future.


Commercial Transportation Powerhouse

Even in this network map from 1999, Chicago’s central position in rail traffic is apparent.
Department of Transportation

In his 1916 ode to Chicago, Carl Sandburg referred to the city as the “hog butcher for the world, tool maker, stacker of wheat; player with railroads and the nation's freight handle.” With more lines of track radiating in more directions from Chicago than from any other North American city, the description was clearly right on target. The city served as a vital gateway and distribution center for transporting the bountiful grain and livestock from the Midwest to the rest of the continent and the world.

Chicago built its first rail connection in 1848 to connect the Windy City with the lead mines of Galena, Illinois. Later lines connected the city with Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, New Orleans, St. Louis, Kansas City, Omaha, and St. Paul. The sudden rise of rail-based commercial transportation corresponded with Chicago’s post-Great Fire building boom. As a result, “Chicago 2.0” was tailor-made with rail as a top priority.

Freight from other cities was also funneled through the central yards of Chicago, where it was classified and then transferred to massive outlying sorting yards on the city’s periphery. Recognizing both its importance and centralized location, the majority of the railroad companies building west of Chicago chose the city for their corporate headquarters.

Connecting Cities

Chicago's old Grand Central Station.
Wikimedia Commons

At the height of passenger rail’s popularity, Chicago was the undisputed railroad center of the United States and contained no less than six city-to-city train terminals. As the mode of transportation declined in the 20th century with the rise of the interstate highway system and growth in commercial aviation, buildings such as the Great Central Station, Grand Central Station, and Dearborn Station were eventually razed, repurposed, or replaced by more localized commuter routes rather than intercity service.

Only Amtrak’s Union Station remains largely unchanged from how it appeared at the height of Chicago’s Golden Age of rail. After decades of deterioration, the 92-year-old Beaux Arts structure at 225 Canal Street has received a number of recent renovations including repairs to the massive skylight of its Great Hall, the addition of the new Metropolitan Lounge, a makeover of the water-damaged former women's lounge into the gorgeous Burlington Room, and the thorough restoration of the marble staircase immortalized in the “baby carriage” scene of The Untouchables.

The Union Station redevelopment plan calls for a pair of new 12-story residential structures to be construction atop the historic headhouse building’s roof.
Goettsch Partners

These upgrades are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to future plans for the nation's third busiest train station. This spring, Amtrak concluded its search for a master developer for Union Station and its 14 acres of adjacent downtown real estate. The ambitious multi-phase redevelopment plan from Riverside Investment & Development Co. and partner Convexity Properties calls for 3.1 million square feet of office, residential, hotel, and retail space and is estimated to cost more than $1 billion.

Beyond upgrades to Chicago’s busiest station, the future also looks bright for improving service across the greater Midwest rail network. While adding or improving train service is often a long, slow, and expensive undertaking subject to the shifting political whims of state, local, and federal entities, a high-speed rail link between Chicago and St. Louis is on track to enter service next year. Though slower than the super high-speed lines found in some overseas countries, the new trains will reach speeds of up to 110 miles per hour. Amtrak is also in the process of rehabbing its aging fleet of Amfleet coach cars.

Connecting Neighborhoods

Though rail transit played an invaluable role in bringing commercial goods and passengers to and from the rest of the United States, its continued importance in connecting Chicagoans on a more local level cannot be understated. Hundreds of thousands of riders rely on the Windy City’s network of municipal and regional commuter trains each day to move easily between Chicago’s neighborhoods, Central Business District, and various outlying suburbs.

The Lake Street Elevated Railroad circa 1894.
Chicago Transit Authority

This year marked the 125th anniversary of Chicago’s iconic ‘L’ system. Though predated only by New York’s first elevated train line, Chicago innovated urban mass transit when the city started replacing its gas-lit cars and coal-fired steam engines with fully electrified trains in the late 1890’s. Drawing on technology demonstrated a few years earlier by the “intramural railway” of the Chicago World’s Fair, the big breakthrough came with the adoption of a distributed mechanical system.

Eliminating the need for a dedicated engine car, this revolutionary solution placed motors and braking equipment in each train car. The result not only increased performance, but removed the need to rotate trains in roundhouses at the end of each line. This basic layout soon became the gold standard for urban metro rail and has been adopted across the globe.

The newly opened Washington-Wabash L station in Chicago’s Loop.
Twitter/@ChicagosMayor

The train system that gave the Loop its name has been expanded, rerouted, demolished and upgraded over the past 125 years. It features a wide variety of architectural styles. From the historic and soon to be landmarked 1897 Quincy stop to the midcentury modern stations of the Blue Line and IIT campus to the Loop’s state-of-the-art Washington-Wabash “superstation,” Chicago’s ‘L’ system is as architecturally diverse as the city itself.

With rising ridership, new trends in urban living, and forward-looking legislation, Chicago’s local rail network is playing an even larger role in real estate development. Thanks to an expanded 2015 Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) ordinance, new areas of the city are ditching auto-centric developments for more dense, walkable, and environmentally friendly designs made possible by their proximity to transit.

With rail transit paying such rich dividends, it’s little wonder why City Hall is pursuing plans to increase capacity and extend service to underserved neighborhoods.