Railroads & Locomotives Hot Spots Railfan Road: Chicago’s Cicero Avenue

Railfan Road: Chicago’s Cicero Avenue

By John Friedmann | June 17, 2024

| Last updated on June 24, 2024

42 miles of roadway offer 18 rail lines, with freight, passenger, and commuter action

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Commuter train with city skyline as backdrop
Chicago’s Cicero Avenue: The 100-story John Hancock Center provides the exclamation point on the Chicago skyline as a Metra Milwaukee West train, powered by one of the commuter operator’s SD70MACH rebuilds, approaches the Grand/Cicero station on May 15, 2024. David Lassen

Roosevelt Road used to be ‘the’ Chicago railfan road. On less than a mile of viaducts just south of downtown, fans could catch passenger trains to and from many of the great Chicago passenger stations and associated coach yards. But intercity trains now only call at Union Station, and while commuters still roll, several iconic terminals and longtime coach yards are long gone.

Now Cicero Avenue (nobody calls it Illinois Route 50) is Chicago’s best railfan road — further out, running north-south and focused on freights and commuters more than intercity passenger trains. The scenery may not be world class, but the rail action is dense — 18 rail lines hosting about 650 trains per day along 42 road miles. Don’t decry “look-alike” commuter trains — six locomotive types lead Metra commuter trains in different paint, including several heritage schemes

Start in Skokie near the intersection of Skokie Boulevard (which becomes Cicero Avenue) and Dempster Street at the Chicago Transit Authority’s Skokie Swift terminal. The Skokie Swift is the most prominent operating remnant of the Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee system and retains its interurban feel. Heading south, Skokie Boulevard parallels and then crosses under the Swift.

Rapid transit train on line surrounded by power lines
The initial stages of the route of the CTA Yellow Line (aka the Skokie Swift) are something less than scenic. This train is approaching the Niles Center Road grade crossing shortly after leaving the Dempster-Skokie station. David Lassen

Enter Chicago proper on what is now Cicero Avenue. In quick succession, cross over the CTA’s Blue Line in the Kennedy Expressway median, then underneath the six-diamond (!) crossing of CPKC’s C&M Sub to Milwaukee and Union Pacific’s Harvard Sub. Both lines host Metra trains (128 total), and the CPKC line also has Amtrak. Mayfair tower used to govern this busy crossing, but was torn down in 1997. Train watching is difficult at this hot spot because both lines are elevated. If train schedules show something due on the CPKC, duck into Metra’s Mayfair station a few blocks down.

Passenger train passing through station platform
A Milwaukee-bound Amtrak Hiawatha, slowed to a crawl because of a Metra UP Northwest train that has just cleared the diamond ahead, passes through the Milwaukee North station at Mayfair in fading light on March 12, 2024. David Lassen

Three miles south, you’ll encounter Metra’s Milwaukee District-West line, also used by CPKC. While the Metra station is Grand/Cicero, most railfans know this area as Cragin for the nearby CPKC/Belt Railway of Chicago connection. The Metra station (accessible from the underpass) sits in the middle of the interlocking and makes a convenient train-watching perch. Starting here, BRC’s main line runs parallel to Cicero Avenue (but out of sight) until past Midway Airport.

Cicero next crosses UP’s ex-Chicago & North Western Omaha main line. UP’s M-19A diesel shop is a few blocks east, which primarily services Metra power assigned to ex-C&NW lines, but basically, all you’ll be able to see is the outside of the building: Kinzie Avenue runs along the UP opposite the shop, but the steep embankment from track level to road shields the activity from view. Metra trains are frequent (58 daily), and you can see UP freights, mostly interchange with NS and CSX via the Western Avenue corridor.

Just beyond the Eisenhower Expressway (I-290) is CSX’s lightly-used Altenheim Sub. Bridge problems on the east end limit the line to local service, primarily to Ferrara Candy (famous for Lemonheads and Atomic Fireballs!)  Farther south there’s an unusual at-grade crossing with CTA’s Pink Line, formerly the Douglas Park Branch. CTA’s Cicero station is at the crossing.

Rapid-transit train crossing street
A CTA Pink Line train brings Cicero Avenue traffic to a halt as it pulls into the Cicero station. David Lassen

Before the next railroad bridge, turn right on 25th Street then left on 49th Place to get to Metra’s BNSF Line (former CB&Q) Cicero station. The location at the east end of BNSF’s Cicero Yard provides views of through trains (Amtrak, Metra and BNSF) and yard action. Be warned most of the 100+ passenger trains don’t stop and come through at track speed!

Two commuter trains
F40s of two designs handle Metra BNSF trains as they meet at Cicero. David Lassen

After exploring the area around Cicero Yard, head south to encounter CN’s former Illinois Central Freeport Subdivision overhead. Never heavily used by Chicago standards, this portion of the line has been made quieter by CN’s EJ&E purchase. CN’s small Hawthorne Yard is just to west.

Just before Cicero crosses the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, bump across an ungated CN industrial track (formerly IC subsidiary Chicago and Illinois Western). Make a quick right onto 40th St. (it looks like a driveway) and dodge trucks for about a half mile and you’ll come upon Watco’s Cicero Central, which serves a Koppers plant using ex-Milwaukee MP15ACs.

Back on Cicero after crossing the Chicago River, BNSF’s former Santa Fe main line is overhead followed by the Stevenson Expressway (I-55) and CN’s Joliet Sub, the former GM&O route to St. Louis, which also hosts 10 daily Amtrak trains and six Metras. BNSF’s Corwith Yard (intermodal) is about a mile and a half east. While good access points are hard to find, a driveway off of South St. Louis Avenue (north of 38th Street) will provide a clear view of CN crossing Corwith’s north throat.

Car traffic now gets heavier because Cicero Avenue is the main route to Midway Airport. BRC’s 59th Street Branch crosses overhead just north of the airport, but the big reward — BRC’s Clearing Yard — lies on the other side of Midway. Cicero Avenue provides the best views of Clearing, one of two double hump yards left in the United States. Variety abounds because all Class Is use Clearing and trains for CSX’s Bedford Park intermodal terminal on Clearing’s south side add to the action. Cicero has sidewalks on both sides over the BRC, so park nearby and walk up.

View of yard
A Belt Railway of Chicago slug set pushes a string of cars over the Clearing Yard hump (the top of which is marked by the bridge-like structure at the top left in the photo) on March 2, 2024. David Lassen

The distinctive round tower of the Hilton Oak Lawn signals the crossing of Metra’s SouthWest Service. This was Wabash’s Chicago-Decatur, Ill., route, abandoned by Norfolk Southern south of Manhattan, Ill., since 1990. Metra’s 30 daily trains dominate the action, while NS has only a single local. Metra’s Oak Lawn Patriot station is just west of Cicero Avenue.

Aerial view of commuter train at station
A Metra SouthWest Service train stops at the Oak Lawn Patriot station in a view from the adjacent parking garage. David Lassen

Cicero next crosses over the Indiana Harbor Belt main line. But continue south across the Cal-Sag Channel and take a left on 135th Street. Bearing left again on South Claire Boulevard will take you to Blue Island’s eight-track Broadway rail crossing. IHB joins CSX’s Barr Sub and former Grand Trunk Western Elsdon Sub here, but you can find trains of every Class I in town while Metra, CSX and Iowa Interstate trains fly overhead on the nearby former Rock Island, visible from the crossing.

The classic Blue Island shot from Broadway features the multiple bridges over the Cal-Sag Channel. David Lassen

The road goes under the Metra-owned Rock Island route to Joliet several miles south, and Metra’s Oak Forest station on the west side provides convenient parking and wide-open angles.

Chicago’s outskirts are signaled by a crossing of CN’s former Elgin, Joliet and Eastern, “Chicago’s Outer Belt.” The “J” is much busier since it absorbed CN’s trains through Chicago starting in 2009.  Turn left off Cicero at Kildare Avenue to get to the suburb of Matteson where the CN’s Illinois Central and Metra’s former IC electrified commuter lines fly over EJ&E. Linking CN’s EJ&E and IC routes required constructing a long looping connection, but the best feature is an elevated railfan viewing platform. The railfan platform provides good views of the connection and the Metra/IC main lines, but better angles of the EJ&E may come from the Main Street crossing nearby.

Two SD70s, one still in Illinois Central “Death Star” paint, lead a train past the railfan viewing platform at Matteson on March 2, 2024. The warming sheds of the Metra Electric station are visible in the background. David Lassen

Appropriately, the last stop on this railfan road is University Park, the southernmost station on Metra and the end of electrified territory. Because Metra equipment lays over here, it’s easy to work shots of Metra EMUs with passing CN freights.

Freight train passes parked electric bilevel equipment
In a shot from the end of the platform at Metra’s University Park station — end of the line for the Metra Electric — a southbound Canadian National train with CSX and Union Pacific power passes the last of a string of Metra Electric trainsets laying over for the weekend on March 2, 2024. David Lassen

Worth stopping for:

  • Tired of driving? Try riding. Metra offers a full-system pass for $13.50 weekdays, $10 for a full weekend, or $7 Saturday or Sunday. A CTA day pass is only $5.
  • Chicago specialties. What Cicero Avenue lacks in fine dining, it makes up in local fare. Two of Chicago’s best Italian Beef spots are along Cicero: Roma’s in Mayfair and Scatchell’s in Cicero. Many Chicagoans swear by Portillo’s hot dogs and Polish sausages, which you can sample at a new location on Cicero next to CN’s Freeport Sub. For deep dish pizza, try Louisa’s on Cicero in the south suburbs.
  • Blue Island beverages. Only 0.3 miles west of the Broadway crossing in Blue Island is the Rock Island Public House, named for the tracks nearly in its backyard. There are plenty of pinball machines to play between trains.

If time is short:

Plant yourself at a location and let the trains come to you, especially during rush hour. Two of the best are along BNSF ‘s ex-CB&Q Chicago Sub (although the farther-out suburbs offer better scenery) and the busy Broadway crossing at Blue Island.

Besides the railroad:

You won’t find Chicago’s prime tourist attractions along Cicero Avenue’s gritty neighborhoods. But two sporting venues are near the route: Hawthorne Race Course offers weekend horse racing and SeatGeek Stadium hosts men’s and women’s pro soccer.

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