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Railfanning Chicago at Lisle, Illinois

By David Lassen | October 24, 2021

The latest in a series about how to watch trains and railroad traffic in and around Chicago

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Commuter train at platform framed by leaves of tree.
Chicago Railfanning at Lisle: Orange locomotives moving train in heavy snow.
PHOTO 01: Snow obscures most of the train as a westbound manifest freight passes under the signal bridge at the east end of Lisle on Feb. 9, 2020. (Trains: David Lassen)

Railfanning Chicago at Lisle, Illinois, is good for those hard winter days. You know, the ones that sometimes feel like it requires all the preparation, gear, and endurance of the Amundsen South Pole expedition.

This is what makes Lisle, on BNSF Railway’s triple-track main line between Chicago and Aurora, Ill., is a good place to visit. It’s a good location to do your train-watching where you can watch for approaching traffic from your car and jump out into the rain/snow/wind/cold just long enough to get a photo.

Of course, most days are good for a trip to Lisle — as you’ll see from the photos, I’ve spent plenty of time there on nice, sunny days. With one of the few major curves on the Racetrack, convenient parking, and the sheer volume of traffic, you’ll keep busy. There may not be the variety of photos that some other locations offer, but sometimes quantity is its own reward.

Orange locomotives approaches curve with train stretched out behind on long straight.
Photo 02: An eastbound manifest, crossing over from the right-hand track, approaches on the center track of the three-track main on March 18, 2018. Note the new, smaller sign about the holding area. (Trains: David Lassen)

Watching trains at Lisle

To watch from your car, you’ll want to go to the Metra station’s Lot E, accessible from Burlington Avenue by passing through Lot C, adjacent to the Lisle Village Hall. On weekdays, a permit is required until 2 p.m.; the daily permit is available in the Village Hall starting at 7:55 a.m. and costs $3. (Helpful hint: there are clean restrooms in the lobby.)

With a little experimentation, you’ll find a spot near the center of the lot (which conforms to the curvature of the main line) that allows you to see the signal bridges to the east and west, which will help alert you to oncoming traffic. For westbounds, you can walk to the eastern end of the lot (or if it’s really nasty or you’re feeling lazy, you can drive there) for a good shoot. For eastbounds, you’ll more or less be looking down a long straight-away at approaching trains. (This will be particularly true if you have a higher-riding vehicle like an SUV; with my compact car, the fence between the lot and tracks allows me to see the signals but not the tracks. Occasionally a train sneaks up on me.)

There are some secondary shots available from the Metra station platform. But really, the parking lot is your best place to go.

Chicago railfanning map of Lisle, Illinois
Railfanning map of Lisle, Illinois.

Chicago railfanning at Lisle: getting there

Lisle is about 25 miles west of downtown Chicago, about 9 miles west of the previously featured Shoofly location straddling Western Springs and Hinsdale, and about 5 miles east of the Amtrak and Metra station in Naperville, a popular railfan location we’ll probably cover at a future date. If you’re coming from a distance heading west, take Interstate 88 (a toll road) to state Route 53 and head south; turn left at Burlington Avenue and continue straight ahead until you enter the Village Hall Lot. There’s no Route 53 exit from the east, so take I-88 to I-355 south, and exit at Ogden Avenue; head west, make a left at Center Avenue, and another left at Burlington. If you’re coming from other nearby locations, just take Ogden to Center.

Commuter train at platform framed by leaves of tree.
Photo 03: Fall colors are evident as a Metra train stops at the outbound platform at the Lisle station on Oct. 25, 2019. (Trains: David Lassen)

Lisle’s railfanning creature comforts

There are gas stations and fast-food places galore along Ogden Avenue, and some restaurants on Lisle’s Main Street, just a couple of blocks from the station. Nearby, Naperville has plenty of restaurants and hotels.

Train with two orange locomotives and tank cars rounds curve.
As seen from the inbound platform, two new locomotives lead a westbound train of unit oil empties through the station on Jan. 24, 2015. (Trains: David Lassen)

Train time

It’s a rare day when this line isn’t incredibly busy. BNSF traffic includes a steady stream of hotshot intermodal trains. Metra is, at this writing, operating 94 BNSF trains on weekdays; about 70 of these operate through Lisle. (The others are short-turn trains that turn back to Chicago before coming this far west.) There are also eight Amtrak trains daily, with the California Zephyr, Southwest Chief, Carl Sandburg, and Illinois Zephyr operating in each direction.

6 thoughts on “Railfanning Chicago at Lisle, Illinois

  1. Or, how to watch frequent passenger and freight action without sacrificing comfort and convenience. David Lassen hits the nail on the head – most of the Burlington passes through pleasant, safe suburbs with available food and open public restrooms. I might add that another draw is that in many locations, streets parallel the railroad so that one can go for a good walk without missing any trains.

    All this remains true despite the changes over the years. The Borders bookstore at LaGrange is long gone now. The coffee shop wasn’t much for food but it offered a towerman’s view in marginal or bad weather. At Hinsdale, the Adventist Medical Center had a great cafeteria but is not currently open to anyone who wants to walk in, due to COVID.

    For sidewalk cafes with a view of the action (in appropriate weather) LaGrange has about three – quite likely other villages also offer this amenity.

    For UPRR fans, there is Elmhurst, another village that offers walking parallel to the ROW. No Amtrak but enough freight and METRA.

  2. I have found the action at the Fairview BNSF station to be fantastic on some days. Particularly during the evening rush hour. Metra’s express trains and turn-backs plus locals can get intense. And throw in a late Amtrak can show what a good dispatcher can do with the three tracks. There was an inbound scoot on the south track (3) and a turnback outbound on the north (1) track which has to cross over to #3, change ends and deadhead back to Chicago. Then a late nonstopAmtrak CZ arrives on the center track and switches to #3 to follow the inbound scoots. Then the 5:00 PM nonstop to Naperville roars through at 70 mph on track 2 followed by the 5:04 PM Downers Grove Express slows down to cross over from #2 to #1 track for its DG stop.

  3. There is a terrific supper club style steakhouse called Raymes on IL-53 just south of the railroad bridge with excellent fried perch and (yes) bluegill! Also sizable old fashioneds that rival Wisconsin’s best. Worth the stop.

  4. The BNSF Chicago sub is the busiest sub I have ever rail fanned. It is one great suburb after another, the vast majority safe areas, and very well kept. Whenever I go to Chicago, I always make it a point to go to the Western suburbs on the BNSF. Elmhurst is another beautiful town on the UP, where I have also spent many pleasant days.

  5. Not a sumptous as Lisle, there are locations in Cicero and Berwyn that are excellent for gritty shots in older communities. Even Western Avenue can be a good hang for trains—but I would recommend going with a friend there. Hinsdale is the most upscale of all communities along the line and the new Oak Street bridge is decent for overhead views. The only downside there is the new bridge was built with vertical narrowly-spaced aluminum bars that make photography a little more challenging. And the Hinsdale police will stop and talk to fans if they are dumb enough to dart in front of traffic (sadly seen it) . There are zero restaurants, bars, or coffee shops within walking distance here. There is a coffee shop and cafeteria in Hinsdale Hospital right at the bridge, but Covid-19 protocols severely limit access at present inside the hospital.

  6. If you are in Lisle don’t forget to checkout the preserved CB&Q depot and caboose a couple of blocks north of the tracks.

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