Roosevelt Road

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Roosevelt Road between State Street and Canal Street in Chicago is an extended overpass. In 2018, it provides a prospect for train watching tracks into LaSalle Steet Station and Union Station, including the AMTRAK yards. But it also provides a view of a pretty amazing stretch of vacant land once occupied by the Rock Island railroad and sundry industry. The bridge is decorated with bronze (I think) sculpture. It’s a pretty busy place, with considerable auto and pedestrian traffic… during the day, at least.



Nickel Plate 765

Nickel Plate 765 @ Roosevelt Road pulling into Chicago’s LaSalle Street Station, September 16, 2018. Photo by Roman.

Trainspotters won’t like it, but railroad photography has a lot in common with pornography. While trains ain’t sexual (for most of us, I assume), the photography is representing what is otherwise a sensual experience: the rumble and the roar of the Wabash Cannonball, as the song goes. The same for photographing sex. (Though if there’s a rumble and a roar, it’s probably theatre.) Likewise, there aren’t many camera angles that make sense for either trains or sex so the photography for both tends to be awfully repetitive. But there I was, along with a few dozen other enthusiasts and curious onlookers, on the Roosevelt Road overpass above the METRA tracks. We lined up on the south and north sides of the bridge, waiting in the sun for the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society’s restored steam engine, Nickel Plate #765, to come by on its fourth (and final for the season) “Joliet Rocket” excursion run between Joliet and Chicago on the old Rock Island tracks.

The camera most definitely got in the way of the experience. I’m almost sorry I brought it along.

For those who might be wondering, the old Nickel Plate railroad is now a part of the Norfolk Southern system. No. 765 is a member of the last generation of steam locomotives, built in 1944. It was designed for fast freight service, and performed well by all accounts, but diesel-electric locomotives proved more economical. Steam locomotives actually develop more power at higher speeds, diesel-electrics the opposite, making diesels more useful in more situations. By the time 765 passed under the Roosevelt Road bridge, it was probably travelling at around 10 miles per hour. You’ll note the METRA diesel at the tail end of the train. It provided electrical power for the passenger cars. I’m not sure if there’s any way of turning the train at LaSalle Street Station (probably not), so it may have piloted the train back to Joliet also.

765, incidentally, is a large piece of equipment, weighing over 400 tons. It’s big even by today’s standards. Back in 1944, freight cars were typically 30 or 40 feet long and carried… 50, 60 tons of cargo, IIRC. Imagining 765 at the head of fifty to a hundred of these smallish freight cars travelling at 60 miles per hour… Impressive. Plus back then freight cars were not equipped with roller bearings but had journal bearings lubricated  with oil soaked rags. They were seriously noisy compared to rolling stock today. Talk about the “rumble and the roar” thundering by in a cloud of coal smoke and dust!

I’d recommend Roosevelt Road as a train watching location in Chicago: hardly a news flash for local trainspotters but maybe useful for outatowners. There are the METRA Rock Island tracks, and just a block or so west, you’ll find the AMTRAK yards and the south tracks into Union Station. In the distance to the south, there’s the St. Charles Air Line. It’s easily accessible and there’s always something going on. Since much of it is passenger trains, it’s also scheduled.


Bureau Junction

Bureau Junction
Chicago bound Peoria Rocket pulls into Bureau Junction station. Photo by ?.

This is a postcard that I ran across while reorganizing the hall closet. I’m not sure of the photo date, though my guess is sometime in the 1940s though maybe it could be as early as 1937 or as late as the very early 1950s. The Rock Island Railroad was fairly aggressive about changing from steam locomotives to diesel-electric, especially on passenger trains as early as 1937. The process was interrupted by World War II, but the Rock Island’s steam locomotives were all retired by 1954. There is a coaling tower and water tower in the background (behind the baggage carts).

The photo is of Bureau Junction, Illinois, where the old Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific railroad threw off a branch line to Peoria, Illinois. The photo looks southward down the Peoria branch, and the arriving train (note the blur) is probably the Peoria Rocket. (The Peoria Rocket made it’s first run in September of 1937, diesel-electric powered.) You’ll note a fellow standing beside the locomotive. He’s handing up train orders on a long pole to a crew member in the locomotive cab. On the near right, you’ll note a fellow standing next to a small shack. The shack was for a crossing guard, something that was common before automatic crossing gates and lights. I don’t know if the fellow alongside the shack is the guard but if you look closely, he’s wearing quite the hat. The Rock Island’s double track mainline is on the other side of the station, and it curves away west. For a while, there was also an interurban trolley line that entered Bureau Junction paralleling the Rock Island mainline. Even mainline passenger trains would stop at Bureau Junction as it was a transfer point for passengers for the Peoria branch and for the interurban. After the trolley line was abandoned, buses would arrive before train arrivals and depart after.

Bureau Junction was also the departure point for the Illinois — Mississippi Canal (aka Hennepin Canal) that provided a short cut between the Illinois River and the Mississippi River. Most folks no longer remember that the canal ever existed, but it was completed in December of 1907 and remained in operation until 1951. It still exists, mostly, as a small waterway and as an Illinois state park.

Incidentally, the photo makes Bureau Junction look Illinois flat, but the town is in the Illinois River valley. The Rock Island mainline wiggled more than a little both west and most especially east of Bureau Junction as a result. It is flatter, though, than I remembered it.

Even though it was multimodal transportation hub, Bureau Junction at its peak was always a small and mostly sleepy town: maximum census no more than 700 in the 1920s but less than half that now. The Rock Island went belly up in 1980 and its assets were sold to cover its debts. The lines through Bureau Junction were acquired by a new railroad, Iowa Interstate. Much of the Rock Island’s network is still operated by one railroad or another. Some of them, including Iowa Interstate, still play off the old Rock Island brand.

This is how the same location looked in 1993. The view is almost opposite from the postcard, looking north along the Peoria branch to where it joins the mainline. Most of the tracks have been removed. The red Ford Escort is approximately where the crossing guard’s shack stood. The station remains though there is no passenger service. From rail fan videos, I can tell you that in 2018 the derelict signal bridge has been long since removed and the tracks are in much better condition.

Bureau Junction 1993
Bureau Junction in 1993. Photo by Roman

My mother’s parents retired to Bureau Junction. Grandpa had worked for the Rock Island as, I’m told, a coal-chute operator though I’m unclear what he did after the Rock Island retired their steam locomotives. Grandma and Grandpa’s house was just across the street from the Rock Island mainline. The time I spent there is basically why I became a trainspotter. It’s also probably how I came to possess the old postcard. When I was last in Bureau Junction for a nostalgic visit in 1993, their old house was still standing. It was probably one of the better houses in that town. Bureau Junction, alas, is a small village version of Detroit. (I’m sure the natives would object to the comparison, but it is.)

Bureau Junction 1993
Grandparents’ home in 1993, decades after they had passed away. Grandpa built the garage (lower left) when he was 70. There had been another house next door. I have no clue when that came down. Photo by Roman


Yes, I’m a foamer.

A… foamer? You might ask.

“Foamer” is a bit of railroad slang for railroad fan, aka train spotter, aka nerd. Just imagine it from the railroad employee’s point of view. It’s another long day at a job (though not necessarily the work) you may hate, employing equipment that is so old or ill-maintained that you have to fight it to use it when, dogging your every step with a camera (including maybe a few rules-violating short cuts) is a starry-eyed nut. You might be flattered but you might just as easily be pissed-off, especially if said foamer engages in unsafe behavior. They often do.

The web has been kind to both parties, allowing for virtual “rail fanning” at places and circumstances you’re never likely to be able to access otherwise: for example, the locomotive cab of a intercity passenger train in Vietnam.

The above example is not the only Vietnam locomotive cab ride video available on the web, but it was my first encounter with the subject. Here’s my take-away from the two hours and change journey:

  • This locomotive engineer does love the horn and is not entirely disciplined in using it. Apparently the locomotive is not equipped with a bell, as there are many circumstances when here in the States an engineer would be using the bell instead of the horn. On the other hand, other sources tell me that the railroads in Vietnam have a real problem with vehicle and pedestrian collisions, and in fact there are probably more pedestrian grade crossings than there are vehicle grade crossings on this route. Maybe I’d be leaning on the horn too.
  • Here in the States you’ll find instances of “street running,” places where the tracks run down the middle of a street. These are usually branch lines or industrial spurs, but you can find a few mainline examples also, such as the South Shore railroad in Michigan City, Indiana. In this video, in both Hanoi and in Hai Phong, you’ll find what I can only describe as alley-running. (Much of the Chicago Transit Authority’s routes were built along alleys but above the alley not in them.) This particular video was recorded in 2017, and it appears to me that the railroad has had some success in gaining control of its right-of-way. It also appears to me that this was not always the case.
  • Most of the Vietnamese rail network is meter gauge, narrower than “standard” gauge, but you will see one example of dual-gauge trackage at a station that also serves a branch that connects with the Chinese rail network. The Vietnamese network also appears to use knuckle couplers rather than the European couplers for its rolling stock, and while most of that rolling stock appears European in its design sensibilities, these are large pieces of equipment. (I’m not sure how many folks realize just how big freight cars and passenger cars have become in the States in the past half century.) Other sources tell me that the Vietnamese right-of-way is not particularly well-maintained, but the Hanoi – Hai Phong route must then be an exception. It was smooth running, signal equipped (possibly some Centralized Traffic Control in the Hanoi region?), often brisk in speed and (apparently) radio equipped.
  • Despite the above modernity, the railroad is very labor intensive. There are crossing guards at most major road crossings and sometimes not just crossing gates but crossing fences. Judging by the crowds and traffic, the fences may very well be necessary. There are switchmen stationed at most station sidings and station agents at every station; they all meet the train, regardless of whether it is to stop or not. I get the impression that this will be changing, but like many state-owned enterprises, employment is perhaps as much a priority as profit.
  • The railroad is struggling for freight business. There were very few industrial spurs. New greenfield industrial plants had no sidings. A few older plants had sidings but no active connection with the mainline. There may have been one siding that was serving as a “team track”. This passenger run met only one freight train of a dozen cars or so, parked on a siding and awaiting a crew. There was also a switch engine in the Hai Phong terminus yard shunting freight cars. Many station sidings had surplus freight equipment stored. (You can find that here in the States also, though we tend to use entire branch lines.) Other sources confirm that the railroad has a very small percentage of the freight traffic in Vietnam, though much of the freight in Vietnam is likely short haul or barge or ship: tough to compete with.
  • Finally, Vietnam is a odd juxtaposition of the familiar and the alien. There is just so much to look at. If the engineer’s enthusiasm for the horn becomes irritating (and it will), turn the sound down or off. You won’t regret the journey.