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Chicago is the center for freight railroading in North America . Early in the evolution of railroads, Chicago gained a foothold as an important hub for many of the nation’s largest railroads; it continues to be one today. In addition to freight railroads, Chicago is served by dozens of Amtrak (www.amtrak.com) passenger trains coming and going to about 500 cities in the USA . Regionally, there are hundreds of Metra (www.metrarail.com) train departures and arrivals everyday from Union Station, Ogilvie Transportation Center and LaSalle Street Stations. Locally the famous Chicago "L" train, or CTA ( http://www.transitchicago.com) elevated and subway trains are easy and safe to get around on. Additionally you can ride the South Shore Line (www.nictd.com/) to South Bend or Gary , Indiana airports and other points south and east of the city. There are many good smart phone apps to coordinate your Chicagoland travel. If you are interested in railroading, Chicago is the place to be.
Chicago is currently served by UP, NS, CSX, IAS, CSS, CN, CP, IHB and several other railroads. One of the best ways to see these is to ride Metra's many lines radiating out from downtown Chicago . If you choose a downtown hotel, you will be within easy walking distance of all needed train stations. You can walk miles and miles in downtown Chicago at all hours of the day and night and never feel unsafe.
If you choose to take a train watching trip on Metra's UP-N (Union Pacific - North) line to Kenosha , WI you may see very little freight activity along the line.
On the other hand, you can see lots of freight activity if you ride Metra's M.E. (Metra Electric) line to Homewood or Calumet. Either of these stops puts you in CN's Markham Yard, the USA headquarters for Canadian National RR. While the yard property is off limits to non-employees, it is clearly visible and very busy, as is the trip there and back. While coming and going from Markham locomotives still painted form many of the regions railroads that have been purchased by the current rail giants are easily seen. These are the railroad locomotives recently seen on this trip, CN (multiple schemes), GT, EJE, IHB , NS , UP (Olympic Torch Scheme), IC, WC, CSX, Metra and South Shore .
Metra's UP-W (Union Pacific - West) line is very busy with freight traffic and the line will take you directly to UP's large Proviso Yard. The closest location to Chicago west of Proviso Yard is Elmhurst. UP freight trains into and out of Proviso are moving at slow speeds. Elmhurst has a business district on either side of the trackswith plenty of restaurants. Check to see if the Elmhurst Model Railroad Club is open. Further out, you will come across SOO Line, CN and CP. Just west of the Wheaton Metra stop there is a great public bridge over the multi-track UP line that is great for photos of UP's many coal, mixed freight and auto rack trains. At West Chicago the Canadian National crosses the UP at one of the few remaining staffed interlockings. This is probably the busiest place for total trains. This line is very busy even on a Sunday. In addition, the Great Western Train Show is held in Wheaton every month. All of this makes this trip a winner.
The second busiest location for trains is the BNSF (former CBQ) mainline from Chicago to Aurora. This triple track line offers frequent Metra service and a high density of freight trains. Many intermodal freight trains originate in the Cicero yard so you want to go to a point west of there. All of the stations are in safe neighborhoods so it's your pick. Many stations have impressive brick stations. LaGrange Road is one option or Riverside which has an unusual water tower.
Joliet Union Station is reputed to be a busy location, and it sits adjacent to the diamond there. If you ride through here on Amtrak you may see very little, but what you DO see could make it worth the wait at the station there. The predominant traffic is BNSF freight to the west, UP freight towards St. Louis and Metra Commuter service.
To the north the Metra the Milwaukee North District operates over the Milwaukee Road main line to its namesake city. Pick a station north of Glenview to make sure you get the Canadian Pacific freight trains which join the line at Techny. In addition Amtrak operates trains on the line including the Empire Builder which is conveniently scheduled for afternoon viewing.
The South Shore Line to Gary, Indiana and will allow you to get a look at South Shore 's freight operations along with
limited NS and CSX. Gary is a very depressed looking little town, so safety could be a concern here.A good location is Michigan City where trains still run down the middle of an urban street.
Metra has many other lines to be explored to junctions like Blue Island and others. On your trips, you will get close up looks at many interlocking towers and other infrastructure items of interest.
Chicago has much more to offer and is worth more than one trip. If anyone has additional suggestions for railfan, locations in the Chicago area please add them here.