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.
Many Metra Electric riders still refer to that line as the IC, since that is the name it was known by for more than 100 years. Through its suburban and intercity trains, the Illinois Central Railroad played a key role in the development of Chicago, Illinois and the United States.
The IC was chartered by the Illinois General Assembly in 1851 to build a railroad from Cairo to Centralia (named for the railroad) and then branch from Centralia to Chicago and to Galena. The 700 miles of track were completed in 1856, making the IC the longest railroad in the world at that time.
When the IC was planning its route into Chicago, the city was trying to pay for a breakwater to protect the lakefront just south of the Chicago River from storms and erosion. The IC agreed to pay for the breakwater if it could build its tracks along the lakefront. The city agreed and established a route 400 feet east of Michigan Avenue. Due to erosion, some of the route was in the lake, a problem the IC solved by putting the tracks on trestles just offshore. The railroad filled in the lake near Randolph St. and built its Grand Central Station, the largest building in Chicago when completed in 1856.
The lakefront route took the IC through an area seven miles south of downtown named Hyde Park, then being developed by real estate speculator Paul Cornell. In exchange for land for the railroad, Cornell insisted the IC build a station and operate passenger service to the area. The IC reached Chicago in 1854 and the new “suburban service” to Hyde Park started on July 21, 1856. (Hyde Park didn’t become part of Chicago until 1889.)
The suburban service was extended to Woodlawn in 1858 and to Oak Woods Cemetery at 67th St. a few years later. But the service didn’t really catch on until after the Chicago Fire of 1871. The South Side was largely untouched and many displaced residents relocated there. (Another result of the fire was that debris was used to fill in the water between the shore and the trestles, creating parts of Grant Park.) Commuter service extended to Riverdale in 1872 and the first Sunday service on the line started in 1873.
The IC opened the South Chicago branch line in 1883 and the Blue Island branch in 1892. And the mainline reached Harvey in 1890, Flossmoor in 1900 and Matteson in 1912. The line was later extended to Richton (now Richton Park) in 1946 and Park Forest South (now University Park) in 1977.
The World’s Columbian Exposition on 1893 played a critical role in the IC’s history. To eliminate unsafe grade crossings, Chicago required all railroads to elevate their tracks, starting with the IC in 1892 in preparation for the fair. The IC also built new tracks to run express trains for fairgoers. And stations for the express trains had high-level platforms, a feature the IC eventually adopted for all its stations.
The success of the IC – and its location along the lakefront – directly led to the electrification of the line. It was bad enough that the 300 or so daily trains were belching smoke, but they were belching it into the city’s front yard. In 1919, the city required electrification by 1940. The work, which also included grade-separating the line to Richton Park, was completed in 1926.
In 1927, the first full year of electrified operation, the suburban lines carried 26 million passengers. Ridership rose to 35 million in 1929, and reached an all-time peak of 47 million in 1946. But a variety of factors caused ridership to decline from there. Population shifts and competition from the car and later the CTA’s Red Line all drew riders away. (In 2015, the line served 9.1 million riders.)
By the 1970s, the IC’s suburban service was in the same boat as other area commuter lines. It was losing money and the IC couldn’t afford upgrades to the system or rolling stock. In response, the Chicago South Suburban Mass Transit District was created in 1969 to use federal dollars to buy the Highliner cars that were in use until 2016, when Metra completed the replacement of the entire Metra Electric fleet with new Highliner cars.
The RTA was formed in 1974 to help freight railroads pay for their commuter operations. Subsidies to the IC began in 1977. But then the Rock Island the Milwaukee Road railroads went bankrupt and the RTA was forced to operate those commuter operations directly. That led to the reorganization of the RTA and the creation of Metra, which started in 1984.
At first Metra paid the IC to run the suburban service. But in 1987, the IC offered to sell its electrified suburban line and the two branches to Metra for $28 million. That’s when the line was renamed the Metra Electric.