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Railfanning Chicago: BNSF’s shoofly

By David Lassen | May 19, 2021

Construction project creates photo opportunity with limited lifespan

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Amtrak passenger train passes Metra commuter train in view from bridge across tracks.
Amtrak passenger train passes Metra commuter train in view from bridge across tracks.
LOCATION 1 on Map. From the Oak Street bridge, the westbound Southwest Chief overtakes a Metra BNSF train as both cross the temporary bridge over I-294 on Nov. 28, 2020 (Trains: David Lassen)


Trains Senior Editor David Lassen spends much of his free time in the Chicago area. This is the first in a series of Trains.com articles on his favorite rail photography locations
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BNSF Railway’s celebrated “racetrack” — the triple-track mainline of the Chicago Division between downtown Chicago and Aurora, Ill., — can challenging from a photography standpoint. So, when a project came along that added new curves to a long straight stretch, photographers quickly took notice.

The new photo opportunity was created by a project to widen Interstate 294, the Tri-State Tollway. For the railroad, this means replacing a bridge over the highway in the communities of Hinsdale and Western Springs. That, in turn, required the construction of a temporary bridge just south of the one to be replaced, and a shoofly running the three-track main over that bridge while the road is widened and new bridge is built.

We included a few photos of the early stages of this process in our “Big Projects” special issue. (If you missed that, you can rectify that oversight here.) And, as we mentioned then, you can learn more about the project, which will continue through 2022, at the Tri-State Tollway website.

Map showing photography locations appearing in this article with basic street grids and major destinations.

While the project continues, the best shots are from the east end of the platforms at the Highlands station in the afternoon, as well as from the Oak Street bridge just west of the Highlands station. (Unfortunately, the fencing on the bridge is an issue for telephoto lenses.) In the morning, the best location is a pedestrian crossing of the tracks near the intersection of Burlington and Central avenues in Western Springs. Thanks to some tree clearance, there’s now a decent shot here for westbound trains as they pass the Western Springs station.

Enjoy it while it lasts!

Visitor basics

Getting there: Take I-294 to the Ogden Avenue (U.S. Route 34) exit. Exiting east will take you to Western Springs; turn right at Wolf Road. Exiting west, take a left at the first light, Oak Street; to reach the street parking adjacent to the Highlands depot, turn left at Hickory and right at County Line Road.

Creature comforts: There are restaurants and Starbucks near the tracks in both Hinsdale and Western Springs; during the COVID-19, both communities blocked off portions of the streets paralleling the tracks to create outdoor restaurant seating, which made train-watching a big part of dining. Also, there are restrooms in Hinsdale’s Veeck Park and Western Springs’ Spring Rock Park, although the pandemic made it a little difficult to predict when they would be open.

Train time: In addition to heavy BNSF traffic, this is, of course, also a busy Metra line. Currently, there are 47 revenue Metra trains on weekdays, plus the occasional deadhead move, and 20 on weekends. Metra information is available online.  As of May 31, the route will again see the California Zephyr and Southwest Chief on a daily basis, both inbound and outbound; when they’re on time, those four trains will pass through the shoofly roughly between 2:10 p.m. and 3:10 p.m. (The Amtrak app is a good way to stay updated; check for arrival times at Naperville, roughly 10 miles to the west). This is also the route of the Illinois Zephyr and Carl Sandburg; at this writing, only the Zephyr is operating. The Chicago-bound train passes through a little before 10 a.m.; the Quincy-bound train, if on time, is through about 6:15 p.m.

Amtrak passenger train passes Metra commuter train in view from bridge across tracks.
Photograph location 1 on Map
From the Oak Street bridge, the westbound Southwest Chief overtakes a Metra BNSF train as both cross the temporary bridge over I-294 on Nov. 28, 2020. Photograph by David Lassen
Amtrak passenger train passes Metra commuter train in view from bridge across tracks.
Passenger train passes through S curve on one track as freight train passes in other direction.
Photograph location 2 on Map
The westbound California Zephyr meets a manifest freight as it navigates the shoofly, as seen from the north platform at Highlands, Ill.
Photograph by David Lassen
Passenger train passes through S curve on one track as freight train passes in other direction.
Two commuter trains with bilevel gallery cars meet in late afternoon sunlight.

Photograph from location 3 on Map

From the south platform at Highlands, inbound and outbound Metra trains meet on the shoofly on Oct. 30, 2020.

Photograph by David Lassen

Two commuter trains with bilevel gallery cars meet in late afternoon sunlight.
Black diesels lead long string of tank cars through curves.

Photograph from Location 4 on Map

From the Burlington Avenue side of the pedestrian crossing in Western Springs, a unit oil train with Norfolk Southern units on the point snakes through the shoofly on March 5, 2021.

Photograph by David Lassen

Black diesels lead long string of tank cars through curves.
Short passenger train rounds curve.
Photograph from Location 5 on Map
The eastbound Illinois Zephyr, running on what is normally the westbound main, curves back toward the regular main line from the shoofly on April 2, 2021. An inbound Metra train is visible in the distance.
Photograph by David Lassen
Short passenger train rounds curve.
Container train rolls under signal bridge as it passes commuter station

Photograph from Location 6 on Map
It’s a cold, gray Jan. 2, 2021 as a westbound BNSF intermodal train rolls past the Western Springs station. This is the view looking east from the same location as photo No. 4.

Photograph by David Lassen

Container train rolls under signal bridge as it passes commuter station

2 thoughts on “Railfanning Chicago: BNSF’s shoofly

  1. Construction is underway on a shoofly bridge for UPRR (ex-CNW Belton Line) over USH45/ IH 41 in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. The entire site can be seen from high ground at a hotel parking lot nearby. Technically private property but a place the public is invited to drive to on hotel business so I don’t think I’m too far out of line mentioning it.

    Unfortunately construction crews have dug up the burial site of our twin cats, Chesapeake (1983-1999) and Ohio (1983-1998). We aren’t big UPRR fans but we formerly lived nearby and had a great view of the bridge and the trains from our second-story bedrooms.

    As for the bridge at Hinsdale, a nearby hospital pre-COVID provided a fine cafeteria and restrooms but I don’t know if visitors are currently allowed.

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