Metra History

What is Metra?

You may think there’s an easy answer to that question, and in one sense, there is. Metra is the label we’ve been putting on commuter rail service in the Chicago area since 1984. Behind that simple name, however, lies a convoluted history and a complex, multi-layered system.

To understand how Metra operates, it really helps to know how Metra came about and how Metra is composed.

Chicago has always been the railroad center of the nation, and it has had commuter trains almost as long as it has had any trains. Rail service peaked in the 1930s, when Chicago had the largest public transportation system in the world.

But by the late 1960s and early 1970s, the system was failing across the region, with the CTA, suburban bus companies and freight railroads experiencing big financial losses. To keep the system running, voters in the six-county Chicago area created the Regional Transportation Authority in 1974.

Its mission was to coordinate and assist public transportation and to serve as the conduit for state and federal subsidies needed to keep the system operational. The RTA did not at first directly operate commuter rail service but paid the railroads to do so under purchase-of-service agreements. It also began to reverse decades of disinvestment in the overall commuter rail system, primarily by buying new locomotives and cars.

However, the bankruptcies of the Rock Island and the Milwaukee Road railroads changed the rules of the game. The RTA took over the commuter operations and eventually bought the tracks of those railroads. It created a commuter rail division to operate those lines in 1982.

The RTA was reorganized by Springfield in 1983, and something called the Commuter Rail Service Board was created to oversee commuter rail operations. At the same time, a suburban bus division (Pace) was created. RTA remained as the parent organization for the CTA, Metra and Pace, which are known as the three service boards.

The Commuter Rail Service Board operated the Rock Island line and the two Milwaukee lines directly. It operated the remaining seven lines indirectly, through purchase-of service agreements with Illinois Central Gulf, the Burlington Northern, the Chicago & North Western and the Norfolk Southern.

Due to the complicated and patchwork nature of commuter rail at the time, the rail board in 1984 came up with the “Metra” name as a service mark for the entire system (short for “Metropolitan Rail”). The idea was to bring a unifying identity to all the various components, no matter who owned or operated them.

That system still is in place, although the ownership and/or operators of several lines have changed.

Metra bought the Illinois Central Gulf’s electrified commuter line in 1987 and started operating it directly as the Metra Electric Line. Metra also took over operation of what is now the Heritage Corridor line, which ran on tracks then owned by ICG and now owned by Canadian National.

That same year it also assumed ownership of the Milwaukee lines. It took over operations on the Norfolk Southern line in 1993 and renamed it the SouthWest Service. 

Metra still has purchase-of-service agreement with two railroads. The Chicago & North Western was merged with Union Pacific in 1995, and UP still owns and operates the three UP lines. Burlington Northern, now known as the BNSF Railway, continues to own and operate that line.

Under those contracts, the carriers use their employees and own or control the rights-of-way and most of the other facilities required for operations. Metra owns the rolling stock and in conjunction with local municipalities is responsible for most stations. Metra retains overall authority over fares, service and staffing levels.

Below is some brief information about each Metra line.

Metra owns the tracks and operates trains.

Metra Electric District
The Illinois Central Railroad started offering commuter service to Hyde Park in 1856. It operated on trestles in Lake Michigan just offshore until after the 1871 Chicago Fire, when debris was dumped in the lake and the landfill surrounded the tracks and created Grant Park. The branch lines were added in 1883 (South Chicago) and 1892 (Blue Island) and the commuter service was extended south, eventually to what is now University Park in 1977. The line was grade-separated starting in 1892 and then electrified by 1926. Metra bought the line for $26 million and started operating its service in 1987. It is Metra’s only electric line. Metra Electric timetables are “Panama Orange” in honor of the IC’s old Panama Limited trains.

For a more detailed history about the Metra Electric District, click here.

Rock Island District
Train service to Joliet was begun by the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad in 1852. The branch was built in the 1870s and extended north in the 1880s. The Rock operated service on the line until it went bankrupt. The RTA bought it in 1982. For a short time, service on the line was run by Chicago & North Western but eventually the RTA and then Metra started running it. Rock Island timetables are “Rocket Red” for the Rock Island’s Rocket trains.

For a more detailed history about the Rock Island District, click here.

Milwaukee lines
The Milwaukee West and Milwaukee North lines, which date from the 1870s, are Chicago area remnants of the once-mighty Milwaukee Road, which had a long and storied history that ended in bankruptcy in 1980. At that point, the RTA started operating service on the routes. Metra took over and ended up buying the lines in 1987. One historical oddity is that while Metra owns and operates the Milwaukee lines, dispatching duties are performed by Canadian Pacific in Minneapolis. That was the arrangement in place with CP’s predecessor at the time. Milwaukee West timetables are “Arrow Yellow” for the Milwaukee Road’s Arrow train, while Milwaukee North timetables are “Hiawatha Orange” for the famed Hiawatha trains.

Freight railroad owns the tracks, Metra operates the trains.

For a more detailed history about the Milwaukee District North Line, click here.

For a more detailed history about the Milwaukee District West Line, click here.

SouthWest Service
Parts of this line originated with the Wabash Railway, which built a link to Chicago in 1880. That section, south of 74th, eventually ended up belonging to Norfolk Southern. Another part, from 21st to 74th, belonged to the Chicago & Western Indiana Railroad (which was owned by Wabash and other railroads) and parts are now owned by Metra or NS. Metra controls none of the six intersections with freight railroads on this line. Wabash and the NS operated commuter trains on the route to Orland Park. Metra assumed operations in 1993, renaming it the SouthWest Service. Commuter service was extended to Manhattan in 2006. Metra leases the route from NS, and trains are dispatched from Dearborn, Mich. Timetables are “Banner Blue” to commemorate the Wabash Railroad’s Banner Blue trains.

For a more detailed history about the SouthWest Service, click here.

Heritage Corridor
The line originated with the Chicago and Alton Railroad, then was part of the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio, which merged with Illinois Central. Lemont (1853) and Lockport (1863) are the oldest depots in the Metra system and were there when President Lincoln’s funeral train passed through. For many years there was only one weekday round trip on the line. The RTA added a second trip in each direction in 1979. When the Illinois Central Gulf sold the Metra Electric line to Metra in 1987, it also handed over commuter operations on the Chicago-Joliet route, although it still owned the tracks. Metra renamed the line the Heritage Corridor. Metra still operates the service (it added a third round-trip in 1999 but the tracks are now owned by CN and trains are dispatched from Homewood. Metra controls none of the five intersections with freight railroads on this line. Heritage schedules are “Alton Maroon” for a color used by the Alton Railroad.

For a more detailed history about the Heritage Corridor, click here.

North Central Service
The North Central Service line, the first new commuter rail line in Chicago in 70 years, began operating in 1996 and was upgraded in 2006. Metra operates the line on tracks originally built by the first Wisconsin Central in 1886. The tracks are now owned by CN, and trains are dispatched from Homewood.

Freight railroad owns the tracks and Metra operates the trains.

Union Pacific lines
What is now the UP West line started as the Galena & Chicago Union in 1848, the first railroad in Chicago. The two other UP lines had different origins in the 1850s. Chicago & North Western owned all three for most of their existence. These lines passed to UP ownership when the C&NW merged with UP in 1995. UP now operates and dispatches trains from Omaha, Nebraska. The trains run on the left-hand side, thought to be a function of how the first track and depots were situated when a second track was added. The UP West line was extended to Elburn in 2006. Metra timetables for the UP North are “Flambeau Green”; green for the C&NW’s historical green and yellow locomotives and Flambeau for one of its passenger trains. UP Northwest timetables use “Viking Yellow,” again for the C&NW’s colors and one of its trains. UP West timetables are “Kate Shelley Rose,” named for a girl from Iowa who saved a train from disaster in 1881.

For a more detailed history about the Chicago & North Western Lines, click here.

For a more detailed history about the Union Pacific North Line, click here.

For a more detailed history about the Union Pacific Northwest Line, click here.

For a more detailed history about the Union Pacific West Line, click here.

The first rail service from Aurora to Chicago in 1850 chugged north from Aurora to the G&CU tracks (now the UP West) and then east to Chicago. When that line got too congested, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy built their own direct line, which opened with passenger service in 1864. Over the years, the name of the owner changed to Burlington Northern to Burlington Northern Santa Fe to BNSF. This line was the first to use bi-level coaches, built by Budd in 1950. BNSF dispatches trains from Ft. Worth, Texas. BNSF timetables are “Kelly Green” or “Cascade Green” for the color used on BNSF freight locomotives.

For a more detailed history about the BNSF Line, click here.