St. Patrick’s Day Post-Mortem

First and foremost, thank you to everyone who tagged along on this year’s Itasca St. Patrick’s Day Parade. We had a great year, and this was one of our most well-attended St. Patrick’s Days in recent memory. The Yard Social Club began organizing Metra trips following the last “perfect storm” year where St. Patrick’s Day landed on a Saturday and the trains and downtown were far too crowded for our liking.

And, of course, this year was just like that as well.

First and foremost, even though we planned ahead and negotiated an official 65-person group rate with Metra, the railroad was still caught off-guard by just how deep we rolled from Itasca. While some of that was no doubt part of overall crowding on the system — our 9:23am train had a whopping ten cars, compared to the MD-W’s typical 6- or 7-car consist — no one told our train crew that they had a large group boarding at Itasca. Likewise for the flip trip on the 4:30pm train out of Union Station. I’m looking forward to touching base with Metra and giving them some constructive feedback based on our experience.

Secondly, I apparently wildly misjudged the level of interest in discounted tickets this year. Probably a combination of the Weekend Pass going up to $10 this year and me scaling back our group size after eating a few tickets last year, we had 63 of our 65 tickets spoken for before I arrived at the pre-party. While I’m happy that so many of you chose to use our online registration to get your tickets before the day of the event, having a better idea of the level of interest further ahead of the event would’ve allowed me to change the group size with Metra before the event and get more people in the discounted rate. (Metra’s Group Rates rules require any changes in group size to be submitted no later than 21 days before the event, and requires payment in full no later than 14 days before the event.) While I don’t think the base price will change for 2019, here’s an early warning: prices for tickets will go up for people who aren’t registered by the end of February.

Thirdly, downtown was far too crowded. I will give the Berghoff kudos for expanding their bar area, which made our traditional first stop much more enjoyable. However, our secret is officially out in regards to The Bar Below: while the bar wasn’t that crowded at first, bringing a group of 80 people to a single bar will wildly swing how crowded that bar feels and how fast we can get drinks at the bar.

The good news is, thanks to some upcoming leap years, the next “perfect storm” year won’t happen until 2029. Hopefully next year will be a little less crowded downtown. That said, I did have a few ideas to make next year run smoother for all of us:

  • Earlier coordination with Metra. I plan on working more closely with Metra next year to make sure Metra has a better idea of what to expect when we roll into Itasca. We get our discounted ticket rate by using Metra’s group fares, which means Metra (theoretically) knows to expect a huge group to board on certain trains. While Metra can’t guarantee private train cars for groups (obviously), if the train crew knows ahead of time to expect a group of 80 people, they usually try to hold a car for us. (Each Metra car officially seats about 125 people.)
  • Variable trains home. Every year, some people opt out of our discounted group tickets since that 4:30pm outbound trip isn’t attractive for many people. (I know others of you just humor me and buy our discounted tickets, knowing you’ll need an extra fare to get back to the suburbs — and I thank you for that.) However, with a large enough group, we may be able to reach a critical mass to allow for variable trains home: Metra’s group fare rules won’t let the group rate be a blank slate for any train you want (as someone inevitably finds out the hard way every year, no matter how many warnings I put on the registration forms and the tickets themselves), but I may be able to finagle splitting our group up onto two or three different trains home. Of course, this involves ticket holders to plan ahead and anticipate what train to take home — and y’all aren’t the best planners in the world, and definitely not moreso after a day of drinking. Furthermore, there needs to be a certain critical mass of people in the group for Metra to entertain group rates. Here’s my proposed set-up for next year; please leave me some comments and feedback on your thoughts and how interested you would be in the various options:
    • 9:23am inbound: We all leave Itasca on the 9:23, per tradition.
    • Early outbound: small group (25% or so of the total group) gets the 1:30pm departure, which lets you join us for the Berghoff and The Bar Below, then head back to Itasca early.
    • Traditional outbound: reserved for about half of the group, our traditional 4:30pm departure gets us back to Tree Guys by 5:30.
    • Late outbound: the last 25% of the tickets would be reserved for people spending extra time downtown and taking the 8:40pm train home.

As always, your thoughts and feedback are always appreciated, so contribute your two cents in the comments below, or send your hate mail straight to I’d like to thank the entire McDonald family once again for being such gracious hosts, for starting this tradition years and years and years ago, and for continuing to put this great event together year after year. See you next year!

The Yard Social Club Metra Map

Editor’s Note: We’ve dramatically changed our line naming system in the most recent (May 2019) update of our system map. This page has been updated accordingly.

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.

Metra’s official map, as seen at Chicago Union Station in June 2018.

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.

Click the map for a larger view of the JPG. Or click here to see the map as a PDF.

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.)
  • Emoji: 🎣

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.)
  • Emoji: 🧭

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.
  • Emoji: 🌩

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.
  • Emoji: 🛶

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.
  • Emoji: ⛵️

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!
  • Line Icon: Not Luxo. But close.
  • Emoji: ⭐️

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.
  • Emoji: 🎩

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.
  • Emoji: 🚀

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.
  • Emoji: 🏠

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.
  • Emoji: 🚢

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.
  • Emoji: 🌺

The Diamond Line
Metra Electric – South Chicago Branch
(W) 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.
  • Line Icon: A basic diamond on a teal background.
  • Emoji: 💎

New: Crawl Concierge!

Want to plan your own train crawl but don’t know where to start? Or do you have an idea about what you want to do but you don’t want to deal with going through the schedules? Announcing The Yard Social Club’s new Crawl Concierge service! Simply let us know what you have in mind and we’ll plan your crawl for you! Check out our Crawl Concierge page for more information.

St. Patrick’s Day Train Tickets Now Available!

Train tickets for our annual Itasca St. Patrick’s Day bar crawl are now available! As in previous years, we have a special discounted ticket available for our two official crawl trains. To save time and avoid hassles on the day of the event, this year prices will change depending on when you buy your tickets:

  • Yard Social Special: Buy your tickets on the Snowball Crawl for $6.
  • Standard Pricing: Starting February 1, tickets will be available for $6.50.
  • Day of Event: Tickets are $7 the day of the event, a $1 discount from the Weekend Pass.
  • Ride-along Tickets: If you don’t need a crawl ticket (if you plan on buying a $8 Weekend Pass or if you have a Zone E or higher Metra monthly ticket), special ride-along tickets are available for free to make sure you can ride in the reserved car with us.  However, space is limited.

Reserve your tickets now! Pay The Mayor in person (he usually can be found on Saturdays at Tree Guys), or via Chase QuickPay.