Welcome to Diverging Approach, the official blog of The Yard Social Club! In addition to regular site updates, I’ll be using this space to post some transit-related ramblings from time to time in the hopes of entertaining, educating, and encouraging changes in the Chicago regional transportation network. This blog will be updated occasionally, but like everything else on this website it’s a labor of love so updates may be in fits and starts.
As for the blog name, I chose “Diverging Approach” for three reasons:
“Diverging Approach” is a railroad signal aspect, commonly shown as a red signal over a yellow signal. This aspect indicates that the switch ahead is aligned for a train to change tracks at low speed.
This blog will likely provide some food for thought for potential ways Metra can improve, literally offering a “diverging approach” to how the railroad is run.
And last but not least, I can easily abbreviate references to Diverging Approach as “DA blog”, which fits right in with everything else in Chicago.
Comments will be turned on for most DA blog posts, so feel free to join the conversation and leave your two cents. New Diverging Approach posts will also automatically pop up on The Yard Social Club’s Twitter (@YardSocialClub), so follow along there to not miss an update.
Editor’s Note (Nov 26, 2020): A new version of our map is now available with more details here. This page will be updated accordingly in the near future.
Nothing Metra does can be easy, and their line nomenclature fits right in. Metra operates a legacy network of commuter rail service, and as such most of their lines are named after their host (or former host) railroads. While this serves as a semi-interesting history lesson, it makes for a network that is less than intuitive for infrequent riders.
Metra’s official map is… well, it’s fine. Metra’s online map offerings are more robust, with a GIS base so you can zoom in, click around, and even see individual trains in real-time when you look on a per-line basis.
I had two primary concerns with Metra’s map. First and foremost, it can be confusing — but granted, most of the confusion comes from the line names Metra chooses to use. (More on that in a bit.) But the other issue is that the map makes no effort to delineate service frequency and chooses to focus on regional coverage instead. That’s fine for peak periods (where, admittedly, the lion’s share of Metra’s ridership uses the system anyway), but from the map it’s impossible to know that two of the above Metra lines have no weekend service whatsoever, with another line offering very limited Saturday service and no Sunday service. And then there are the branch lines, which may also have much more limited service. (Or, in the case of the South Chicago or Beverly/Morgan Park branches, they may not.)
You see where this is heading.
Since I can’t leave well-enough alone, I developed my own map and naming scheme for the Metra system. It goes without saying that some of the more creative aspects of this plan are used exclusively on this website, so don’t go asking Metra staff where the Arrow Line is or anything like that. But I may occasionally use our short-hand around Diverging Approach and in our Weekend Guides.
The map, which is formatted to 11″x17″, was conceived as a flower floating on the shore of Lake Michigan. The map otherwise mostly throws local geography out the window, although care was taken to make sure that the respective lines cross in the right places and that the downtown terminals are positioned somewhat correctly relative to each other.
From there, the lines and stations are drawn based on service frequency: generally, the more a line and station looks like the lines and stations on the CTA map, with bold lines and white circles at the stations, the more Metra service that location gets. (Note for the uninitiated: Metra’s off-peak service is nowhere near as frequent as the CTA. The highest frequency we show on our map is “Core Service”, which means service no worse than once every two hours off-peak. That’s also why we used the word “Core” instead of “Good” or “Full” or “Standard”, because any of those terms should be used for off-peak service that’s, you know, good.) As the frequency and/or days of service decrease, the lines get lighter and the stations blend in more with the line behind it, until peak-only services are shown only as light gray dots on a barely-there white line. Our map also looks at what we called “extended service”, where certain trains continue further out into the hinterland at lower frequencies. On the map, these are shown as narrower lines, which indicate that those stations still get service as shown on the map, but not at the same frequency as stations closer to the urban core.
With a hat-tip to the New York City Subway system, I initially developed our naming scheme first based on a lettering system to differentiate Metra from the CTA’s rail lines (which are color-coded) and the CTA and Pace bus networks (which are numbered). Generally, Metra lines are lettered increasing in a counter-clockwise manner from north to south, with groups of letters based out of the four/five downtown rail terminals. I subdivided Union Station into a North Concourse and a South Concourse, based on the raw number of trains that leave Union Station relative to the other terminals. I also divided the Rock Island into two separate lines and the Metra Electric into three separate lines, which I feel more accurately indicates the services offered.
For lines that offer express services during peak periods, the line may have a secondary letter as well. Peak-only supplemental services are identified on our map with either the secondary letter in a diamond (to show express trains) or the primary letter in a square (to show “short-turn” local trains). Generally speaking, all local trains will use the primary letter, and all express trains will use the secondary letter. Since all Metra trains are numbered relatively consistently (outbound trains are odd numbers; inbound trains are even) One of the perks of a lettering system is that individual trains can easily be referred to as a combination of the line letter and train number, which even inline in text can immediately tell the reader basic information about the train in question (e.g., train K2215 is an outbound MD-W train; train R417 is an outbound RI train that does not serve Beverly and Morgan Park).
Let’s be honest: the map is still very confusing, and it’s worth noting that I’m not an expert cartographer. However, that’s also kind of the point of the entire exercise. One of Metra’s biggest strengths in the region also happens to be one of it’s biggest weaknesses: branding itself as a single, cohesive regional network, when in reality each line has it’s own quirks in how service is delivered.
In the most recent update, I also had a little extra fun and refined our suggested proper names for each line as well. Originally, the map referred to trains as “Corridors” that paralleled a major highway heading towards downtown Chicago. That old system had plenty of flaws: the Old Guard wasn’t a fan that we divorced some railroad history from the rail lines, and the Urbanists weren’t terribly happy that we contextualized transit services in terms of highways. (And there were a few difficult choices that had to be made, like having no “Eisenhower Corridor” since both the UP-W and BNSF do the job.) Instead, I put my thinking cap on, dug through the Internet, and came up with something totally unique: names based on former long-distance passenger trains that previously served the line in some way, shape, or form. This had a few benefits:
It’s simple. Each line has an easy-to-remember one- or two-word name.
It honors the past. As a rule, Diverging Approach tries to nudge Metra forward into the future, not backwards into the past, but Chicago’s rich railroad history deserves to be celebrated.
It strikes a balance between the two. One of the biggest critiques of the current Metra naming system is that it’s not terribly intuitive for new riders, and looking at the system as a whole can be way too easy to confuse. For instance: there are two North Lines, two West Lines, and a Northwest Line; there are three lines with “Union” in the name and none of them go to Union Station; the Rock Island and Metra Electric lines can each be better thought of as multiple, coordinated services; there’s dangers of forced future name changes if more railroad consolidation in the market occurs; and so on. Our naming system gets rid of all that and modernizes the system, but still connects back to the original railroads who built the network.
It’s fun. To make things easier to remember and identify, the new naming system also includes individual icons for each line. And better yet, each icon has a corresponding standard-issue emoji for smartphone users because, hey, why not?
Below is a list of our reimagined names (and letters and icons and emojis) for each Metra line.
The Ashland Line Union Pacific North (A) Daily core service to Waukegan with extended service to Kenosha <B> Weekend outbound express trains to Ravinia Park for events
History: The Ashland Limited was a Chicago and North Western train from Chicago to Ashland, Wisconsin, via Green Bay. I was tempted to go with the Flambeau, another C&NW train that used what’s now the North Line, but as a true blue Chicagoan I couldn’t in good conscience go with a name so similar to “Lambeau” on the only line that goes into Wisconsin and has a forest green color scheme to boot. (The forest green color Metra uses is officially “Flambeau Green”. You’ll see I overlapped a few of these line names with Metra’s throwback color names, so I’m hoping that could be a foot in the door to actually making some of these changes.) Plus, the corridor parallels Ashland Avenue pretty closely in the city, so that’s good enough for me.
Line Icon: A fish, being fished. (The Ashland Limited was also occasionally referred to as the Fisherman’s Special or the Northwoods Fisherman.)
The North Western Line Union Pacific Northwest (C) Daily core service to Crystal Lake and extended service to Harvard <D> Peak period express service to Harvard or McHenry
History: The North Western Limited was the Chicago and North Western’s primary train between Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago before the streamlined 400s were used. This one could have also been called “The Viking Line” for the C&NW’s Viking; Metra uses “Viking Yellow” for the color. Honestly, I’m playing a little fast and loose with this one: the North Western Limited used today’s North Line up to Milwaukee before heading to the Twin Cities, but considering it’s currently the Northwest Line that parallels Northwest Highway and used to be operated by the Chicago and North Western, let’s keep this one simple. (And it did operate over the current UP-NW’s tracks between Ogilvie and Clybourn, after all.)
Line Icon: A compass. (And yes the compass is pointing in the correct direction: since the needle always points north, if you’re heading northwest, this is what the compass should look like.)
The Kate Shelley Line Union Pacific West (E) Daily core service to Elburn <F> Peak period express service to Elburn
History: Kate Shelley has a prominent place in railroad folklore. An Irish immigrant living in Iowa in 1881, she overheard a C&NW inspection locomotive wreck into Honey Creek following a bridge washout during a round of severe thunderstorms. Since a passenger train was due through the area later that night, Kate ran through the storm to a nearby train station to alert railroad staff of the wreck. Her quick thinking saved the passenger train as well as two of the crew members from the initial wreck. C&NW would later run the Kate Shelley 400 over what’s now the Union Pacific West Line between Chicago and Iowa. It’s never a bad time to celebrate another brave woman in Midwestern history. (Plus Metra already officially uses “Kate Shelley Rose” as the color for the line.)
Line Icon: A thunderstorm.
The Marquette Line Milwaukee North (G) Daily core service to Fox Lake <H> Peak period express service to Fox Lake and weekday evening reverse commute express service from Antioch
History: The Milwaukee Road ran the Marquette from Chicago to Madison and points west over what’s now the Milwaukee North (before the Illinois Tollway effectively killed demand for passenger rail service into Wisconsin).
Line Icon: In honor of early Midwestern explorer Father Jacques Marquette, who cut through what’s now Chicago in 1673, this line uses a canoe.
The Laker Line North Central Service (J) Weekday basic service to Antioch
History: Metra’s service now operates over tracks controlled by Canadian National, but way back when, the Soo Line operated The Laker between Chicago and Duluth over this corridor (north of Franklin Park). Interestingly enough, the line between Franklin Park and downtown swung south and paralleled what’s now the Blue Line in Oak Park and Forest Park, which makes a fun corridor to discuss in the context of the O’Hare Express. “The Laker” is also a good name for this corridor since it cuts right up through the center of Lake County.
Line Icon: A sailboat. Maybe on the nearby Chain O’Lakes.
The Arrow Line Milwaukee West (K) Daily core service to Elgin with weekday extended service to Big Timber Rd (L) Peak period express service to Big Timber Rd
History: The Arrow was the Milwaukee Road’s Chicago-to-Omaha train, which operated over what’s now the Milwaukee West corridor. Metra calls the color “Arrow Yellow” after the train, but personally I feel like “yellow” is a bit misleading.
Line Icon: I used a stylized arrowhead, pointing left (west) as a hat-tip to the current Milwaukee West name.
Emoji: There’s no direct arrowhead emoji and I feel like one of the standard arrows is a little too, uh, direct… but there is a bow-and-arrow, so whatever, close enough. 🏹
The Western Star Line BNSF Railway <M> Mon-Sat peak express service to Aurora (N) Daily core service to Aurora <O> Weekday peak express service to Fairview Avenue
History: I really, really wanted to use the Zephyr here; the last version of the map that I posted in the last blog post still had the Zephyr listed. But, since this line does serve Union Station, and since Amtrak runs both the California Zephyr and the Illinois Zephyr over this same route, I unfortunately decided that it’d be too easy to confuse. I also considered the Mainstreeter, which is just a cool name for a train plus would be pretty representative of the small towns served by this Metra service, but I opted against it since there’s literally a “Main Street” station on this line (as well as one on a different line). That left the Western Star, a Burlington/Great Northern train that connected Chicago to Spokane via Glacier National Park. Plus, hey, a Star Line!
The Abraham Line Heritage Corridor (P) Peak period express service to Joliet
History: It’s nice when history is still current. The Alton Railroad began the Abraham Lincoln in 1935, and since then the operators have changed (from Alton to Gulf, Mobile and Ohio, and on to Amtrak) but the long-distance train keeps rolling today as Amtrak’s Lincoln Service. To distance the Metra line from the Amtrak service, I kept the Abraham and dropped the Lincoln.
Line Icon: Lincoln’s trademark stovepipe hat. If regular Heritage Corridor riders prefer to see it as a tombstone, hey, go for it.
The Blue Bird Line SouthWest Service (Q) Weekday core service to 179th St with peak period extended service to Manhattan and very limited Saturday service to Manhattan
History: The Wabash Railroad originally ran the Blue Bird (and the Banner Blue, which Metra uses as the color of the line) between Chicago and St. Louis via Decatur. If only the Wabash ran the awesomely named Cannon Ball over this route instead.
Line Icon: It’s a bird’s head. Or at least it’s supposed to be a bird’s head. I’m not good with animals.
Emoji: Another iPhone/Android conflict here: Apple’s bird emoji is actually blue (doesn’t look too dissimilar from my icon, actually); other emoji libraries use a bird that looks more like a cardinal here. When in doubt, add the blue ball in front. 🔵 🐦
The Rocket Line Rock Island – Main Line (R) Daily core service to Joliet via Blue Island (RS) Daily off-peak core local service to Joliet via Suburban Line
History: When Amtrak was first formed in 1971, the government offered railroads a simple deal: pay a small fee and/or give Amtrak your passenger rolling stock to let Amtrak run passenger service, and in return the freight railroads would no longer be on the hook for providing (money-losing) passenger service. The Rock Island was one of six railroads that opted out of joining Amtrak, continuing to run their famed Rocket trains into the 1970s. In Chicago, the Peoria Rocket and the Des Moines Rocket (later the Quad Cities Rocket) operated over the Rock’s tracks between downtown and Joliet.
Line Icon: A rocket, theoretically flying north-northeast from Blue Island to LaSalle Street Station.
The Suburban Line Rock Island – Suburban Branch (S) Daily core service to Blue Island via Beverly/Morgan Park (RS) Daily off-peak core local service to Joliet via Beverly/Morgan Park
History: Another freebie, the Suburban Line has been known as the Suburban Line (or Suburban Branch, depending on the source) since before the Great Chicago Fire. Since in our lettering scheme the Rock’s Rockets are R trains and the Suburbans are S trains, no need to get too deep in the weeds here.
Line Icon: A single-family house. Picket fence and 2.3 kids not included.
The Panama Line Metra Electric – Suburban Main (U) Mon-Sat core express service to University Park (UV) Daily off-peak core local service to University Park
History: The most famous Illinois Central train that doesn’t have a song written about it, the Panama Limited was one of the most luxurious trains in the country, connecting Chicago and New Orleans over the Illinois Central’s main line. The original train was named after the Panama Canal, which was still being constructed when service first started.
Line Icon: Since the train was named after the Panama Canal, the icon is a (very crude) container ship.
The Magnolia Line Metra Electric – City Main/Blue Island Branch (V) Daily core service to Kensington/115th St with Mon-Sat extended service to Blue Island (UV) Daily off-peak core local service to University Park
History: The Panama Limited was one of the most luxurious trains in the country, with an all-sleeper consist. In 1967, as the Panama Limited was losing ridership (along with just about every other passenger train in the nation), the Illinois Central threw a few coach cars onto the Panama Limited and briefly called the coach accommodations the Magnolia Star, probably to try not to sully the luxurious reputation of the Panama Limited. I wonder if there’s some sort of allegory in there for how Metra treats suburban riders vs. city riders…
Line Icon: A simplified magnolia bloom.
The Diamond Line Metra Electric – South Chicago Branch Daily core service to South Chicago/93rd St
History: The Diamond represents a few different Illinois Central trains, including the Green Diamond, the Diamond Special, and the Night Diamond between Chicago and St. Louis. While the South Chicago Branch never hosted long-distance trains (for obvious reasons), these trains still share the old Illinois Central main line into downtown north of 63rd Street.
I should’ve done this a few weeks ago, but updated Weekend Guides reflecting changes in Metra’s fare structure and weekend schedule changes are now posted on the site. Your one-stop-shop to planning your perfect train crawl. Good luck and happy crawling!