Friday, June 14, 2019

The Forgotten Railways of Chicago: The Bloomingdale Line (a.k.a The 606)

The 606 is undoubtedly the most famous abandoned rail line turned linear park in the Chicago area, but it's far from the only one. The Illinois Prairie Path, Great Western Trail, Major Taylor Trail, and the under-construction El Paseo Trail are examples as well.

What sets the 606, otherwise known as the Bloomingdale Trail apart from the rest of these, however, is that it sits on former elevated right of way, more resembling the High Line in New York City. In fact, both railroad lines have a similar beginning, in the sense that both were surface lines before being raised due to safety concerns. What we're left with is a wonderful park to bike or jog in, safe from cars.

The 606 Bridge over Milwaukee Av, looking east.
One thing that is different about the 606 compared to the High Line is that the 606 is much more geared toward cyclists than those looking for a nature walk. I'm no cyclist, so it took me awhile longer to visit this park than other rail trails in the area. That said, with the fact that Divvy bike stations exist on either side of the park, and a couple spots in between, it was pretty accommodating for those of us who don't bike constantly, and a much more unique experience on the trail as a result.

Here's the station at Ashland Av on the right, with the piers of the line still intact. This used to cross under I-90/94 and then over the river. I really hope the 606 expands Eastward, as that would be gorgeous to see.
But before I discuss my experience riding the trail, let's take a look at how it got there in the first place. The right of way dates back to 1872, when it was constructed by the Chicago & Pacific Railroad to connect Chicago to Elgin. West of the park, this line is still in service, owned by today owned by Canadian Pacific Railway and part of Metra's Milwaukee District-West Line. The C&P became part of the Milwaukee Road shortly thereafter, and remained such until the Milwaukee's 1980 bankruptcy. The Soo Line was Milwaukee's successor, and while the Soo was a CP subsidiary, it wouldn't be until the early 2000's that CP consolidated their subsidiaries and took control of the line.

The Bloomingdale Line undergoing elevation work. Image: Universal Bulletin, No. 123, Aug. 1914, pg. 144 via Forgotten Chicago
The Bloomingdale Line got its name from the fact that it originally was a street-running operation along Bloomingdale Ave. Unlike the High Line, there were no "West Side Cowboys" or flagmen patrolling the line when trains were on the move. By 1915, 35 at-grade crossings were eliminated, and the line became a much safer operation as a result.

In spite of the safety issues before the elevation project, the line transformed the neighborhood, bringing jobs and manufacturing to the North Side of Chicago, although many area residents revolted against the line from its inception.

The line continued service for over 100 years in spite of these objections, although passenger service dwindled significantly during the 1940's. Freight service along the 2.7 mile corridor that did not become part of Metra continued until the early 2000's, despite the City of Chicago first studying the feasibility of converting the line to a linear park or greenway as early as 1997.

A Soo Line Caboose at Chicago Ave in 2006. Image: Flickr
The line still had regular freight service as of 2001. Freight cars, like the image above, were still on the line at least as of 2006. By 2009, Collins Engineers was selected to begin construction and design on the linear park conversion, which would become the longest linear park in the US. Groundbreaking began four years later, and in 2015, the line had opened for pedestrian traffic, with the conversion from rails to trail complete.

It took me four years to visit this place, and honestly I'm glad I waited a little bit, because the greenery has grown in nicely around the trail, and there are some trees that could not possibly have grown as big as they are within four years. I started at Walsh Park, just west of Ashland Ave, using a Divvy Bike (and good thing I had the app, as the station's machine was malfunctioning).

Bridge over Marshfield Ave. Parking is free after 10:30am for non-permit holders. Good luck finding a spot. I got lucky
Once you get on the trail, you'll notice bike lanes and a walking shoulder on each side, which was nice. There was a significant amount of traffic on the trail, but not enough that it ever caused an issue. Gardeners were honestly the hardest obstacle to navigate through. I could cruise as fast as I wanted on the bike. (Which wasn't terribly fast, as I'm not an experienced rider)

This is how a majority of the 606 looks. Well hidden away from the rest of the city below by trees.
At no point on the trail did I feel unsafe, as police were visible on either end, and probably other places as well. Still, crime has occured on the trail overnight, although I would not label the trail 'unsafe', considering the amount of traffic it receives.

Going under the CTA Blue Line.
The 606 labels how far you've traveled in each direction on the pavement. Thus, the photo below is near the halfway point of the trail.

While I didn't stop, there are water fountains and places to set your bike down to rest and enjoy the scenery.
There is public art along the trail, just like the High Line, but given the 606 is much longer and geared toward cyclists, it is less and more sporadic.

In parts of the trail, the walking and cycling paths diverge. Side note, I could not have asked for a nicer day to ride.
The area's industrial history is still alive and visible behind the trees as well.

Factory building. Notice the foundation for a water tower.

And there's plenty of new developments and construction for those who can afford to live in the newly gentrified neighborhood.

Once again crossing under the CTA Blue Line, this time heading west and looking south.
West of here, the line is still the very active Metra MD-W, but the greenery obstructs most of the view. No railfanning here.

I wonder if this was part of the old bridge in its railroad days, or if this was built to make it look like that.

A lawn along the path allows walkers to picnic and hang out for awhile if they want to.
I really do like the greenery, but right here it needed to be trimmed a bit for walkers/joggers.
Again, there's no way these trees are only four years old.
While I really did like biking this trail, I still give the High Line the win here if we're comparing the two. But honestly, The 606 has more in common with other rails to trails projects even if it is an urban, elevated park, given its length. 

If you're going to visit, I highly suggest renting a Divvy Bike for an hour (It's $3 every 30 minutes), or bringing your own. Overall, I'm glad I can finally say I visited this Chicago gem!

Thanks as always for reading!

Sunday, June 9, 2019

How To Get a Job in the Railroad Industry

While I greatly enjoy writing Forgotten Railways, Roads & Places, as well as making my abandoned railroad maps, it's not my day job. In the last year, I've gotten to the point where I can make a little side money from this blog, but at the end of the day, it's a labor of love.

One of my 2017 photos on the Illinois Prairie Path.
Without going into my background too much, I am employed in the railroad industry, and I know very well that I'm not the only one who dreamed of working for one of the Class I's early in their life or career. While there is no one path to any goal in life, I figured I would share my story of how I got my current position, and maybe you can learn a thing or two from my experience.

Image: BNSF Railway on Indeed.com
I first got the chance at this dream way back in 2010; being hired as a Freight Conductor. However, it became apparent very early in my career that it wasn't for me. (To those who are conductors, engineers, etc., my hat is off to you.) After graduating college, and working in the traffic and transportation industries for several years, I accepted employment at a railroad in a non-operations setting, so I can say I know the hiring process for both operations and non-operations positions.

Norfolk Southern train in action. Image: Progressive Railroading

The first thing I would note about the railroad, is that at least when it comes to securing employment, it is just like any other industry. You search for jobs, apply to some that you believe you're qualified for, submit a resume (possibly a cover letter as well), and play the waiting game. This is true of any open position. It may also months or years of daily job searches on Indeed, each of the Class I Railroad websites, local short line websites, and the Railroad Retirement Board Job Vacancy List.

Which brings me to my first tip: networking. Using LinkedIn or your own research, finding a connection you know at the company can significantly increase your chances at securing an interview.

That said, particularly for union positions, a bargaining agreement or HR policy may require the position to be interviewed for by a random lottery. In situations like this, your odds are tied to how many other qualified candidates applied for the position, meaning even experienced candidates may be left without an interview. For my current position, I applied, interviewed, received and offer, and after undergoing a background check, began work just as you would at any company.

CN #3151 at Durand, MI on 28 December 2018 (Ralph Watkins photo) Image via thedieselshop.us
I should note that most operations railroad jobs (conductors, engineers, etc.) that are listed on jobs pages like Indeed, usually have hundreds of people applying for only a few open positions. In this case, the railroad may invite qualified candidates to a hiring session.

In my earliest experience, I attended two of these sessions, each of which was several hours long, and had about 75 people each.

Image: Doug Wertman: Flickr
Remember, the railroad is probably hiring at most 10-20 people, and they've invited 4-5 times that many. Their goal is to weed out as many people as possible over the shortest amount of time. The presentation will consist of many realities of working in operations: long hours, extra board shifts, working holidays, weekends, and in cold/snow/heat/rain. A few people got up and left during a break.

This is a maintenance of way crew de-icing switches in the winter, not something one thinks about, but is essential for railroad operations. Image: Norfolk Southern
Next came a written battery test. A lot of mechanical and electrical questions, and simple logic puzzles. I didn't have much trouble with this, but I could see some questions being tricky if they weren't read properly.

Once the tests were graded, about 25 made it onto a full interview. As far as what questions were asked, again these were mostly questions that would be asked at any company, with more of a tilt towards safety and reliability. After two long, grueling weeks of waiting, I heard back and learned I was hired, with a date set to go to Conductor Training.

Image: Kevin Burkholder
At this point I should remind you that being a conductor was not for me, and may or may not be for you either. You'll learn quickly enough if you go down the path if it is for you, however. As large as railroads are, there are opportunities for everyone, from a janitor to an MBA graduate.

The most important part about getting a job on the railroad is simple persistence, which is true of any goal you may have. It took me eight years to work for a railroad again. Not everyone is successful on their first go around.

It may take several attempts to find where you fit in an organization, but if it's something you really see yourself doing, keep applying for jobs, send cover letters, network, and after a certain period of time, your chance will come. The railroad is a great place to work, although like every industry, it has its challenges, some that cannot fully be appreciated by anyone who doesn't work for the industry.

Good luck to any of you looking for jobs out there, and thanks for reading!

Sunday, June 2, 2019

The Orphaned US Routes: 4 US Highways With a Decommissioned Parent Route


The United States Numbered Highway System, or simply US Route System, is a network of roads across the US. They were the successor to the Auto Trail system, which itself was a mixture of public and private roads, and not necessarily coordinated with one another. The most famous example of an Auto Trail would be the Lincoln Highway.

The system differs from State Route systems in that the routes connect different parts of the US; US Highway 20 runs from Oregon to Massachusetts, while state routes (typically) remain in their own state. They also differ from the Interstate System in that the vast majority were built in the early 1920's, long before current highway standards were adopted. A US Highway can be a freeway, but a US Interstate cannot be below freeway grade, unless you live in Wyoming. Just like interstates, there are 2-digit and 3-digit US Routes, which relate to their parent route in some way.

As it is much older than the Interstate System, and vast swaths of US Highways have been replaced by interstates, there exists a few 3 digit US Routes that no longer have parents. Today, were going to discuss what they are, and why they were "orphaned".

1) US Highway 138

US 138 is very short by US Highway standards, running between Sterling, CO and Big Springs, NE for about 71 miles. AASHTO guidelines are for state highways to replace US Routes less than 300 miles in length, but given that this runs in more than one state, it survives.

Image: AARoads.com "The initial five blocks of U.S. 138 in Sterling separate along a one-way couplet of 3rd and 4th Streets" (2004)
So what happened to US 38? Of all the roads in this blog, this one has been orphaned the longest, as US 38 was last signed as such way back in 1931, after just five years in existence. US 38 ran from Greeley, CO to Lincoln, NE, along what is present-day US 6. US 6 underwent a series of extensions from its original alignment to what it is today, now connecting California to Massachusetts. US 6 also replaced a large part of US Route 32.

2) US Highway 199

US Highwau 199 is just slightly longer than US 138, connecting Crescent City, CA with Grants Pass, OR along an 80 mile route.

Northbound US-199. Image: Corco Highways
Like many routes and arterial streets today, 199 started out as a plank road in the 1850's, long before the advent of the US Highway system.

It became an orphan in 1972, after the decommissioning of US Highway 99. I never quite understood the reasoning for decommissioning the route, as large portions of the route are freeway standard. Granted, it's been replaced as a long distance route by I-5, but many US Routes exist side-by-side with their parallel Interstate counterparts. The entire route still exists today as WA-99, OR-99 and CA-99, with historic splits into 99E and 99W as well, so why not bring it back?

199 was saved from becoming a state route itself by connecting two states, as its siblings US-299 and US-399 were decommissioned in 1964, as they only existed within California. Both are now integrated into various California State Routes.

3 & 4) US Highways 166 & 266

Route 66 actually had 7 child routes, including two copies of US 366 at various points in its history. Today, two survive in what I believe is more nostalgia than anything. Both 166 and 266 could easily be decommissioned, as both are far less than 300 miles in length.

US 166 runs for about 163 Miles between South Haven, KS and I-44 west of Joplin, MO, running in the state of Missouri for less than a mile, while multiplexed with another US Route, US 400. Were it truncated to where it connects with US 400, it would lay entirely within Kansas.

US 166 (along with 400 at their Eastern Termini at I-44). Image: Scott Nazelrod, Wikipedia Commons
Like its parent, it once ran all the way into Joplin, but was truncated to its current alignment when I-44 was completed.

US 266 is an even stranger case, as it is just 43 miles in length, and only runs between US-64 in Warner, OK and US-62 in Henryetta, OK, going under I-40, US 66's replacement, without even an interchange. Beginning service in 1926, this replaced OK-9. How this route survived for as long as it did is beyond me, although I think it's unlikely to be decommissioned now, given its association with 66.

Image: Jeff Morrison, 2010 via USEnds.com

The demise of US 66 in conjunction with the creation of I's 40, 44, and 55 is well documented, even in kids movies.

Finally, US 66's highest numbered child, US 666, changed numbers in 2003, after the connotation with the Number of the Beast, combined with an unusually high accident rate among US Routes (mainly because of its poor design through rough terrain) gave it an unfortunate reputation as a dangerous highway. It became present day US Highway 491.

Image: seeksghosts.blogspot.com

When 491 was converted from US 666 in 2003, a Navajo medicine man blessed the road, hoping to end its "curse". Translated into English, his prayer said ""The road itself never ends. It goes on generation to generation. The new number is a good one. The new road will be a medicine."

Since renumbering change, parts of US 491 are now a 4-lane expressway, and in those stretches where the road has improved, so have accident and fatality rates. (Imagine that) Now, the most dangerous parts of the road are transitions for four lanes into two.

Other Interesting Mentions:
Only the previous four routes exist today while their parents did not, but as the Interstate System replaced US Routes, there exist many examples of child routes that no longer connect to their parents. Probably the most extreme example of this is US Route 310; which connected with its now-truncated parent US 10 at Laurel, MT. All of US 10 west of West Fargo, ND was decommissioned when I-90 was built, leaving its child about 600 miles away.

US 310 in Wyoming, along with WY-789, which was once proposed to be its own US Route. Image:  Jonathan Winkler via AARoads.com
In 1970, AZ-464 and UT-47 got upgraded to US Highway status, becoming US 163. The only problem is the US 63 exists about 900 miles to the east. This was never a child of 63, nor was it ever planned to be, but it's interesting that it was given the 163 number when it connected to US 191. Why couldn't it become 291?

It should be noted that US 163, whatever its number, is an absolutely gorgeous drive, passing through Monument Valley in Utah.

US Route 163 with Monument Valley in the background. Image: Wolfgang Staudt, Wikipedia Commons
And finally, there exist three US Routes with no implied connection to any others; US 400, US 412, and US 425, each of which were more recent additions to the system. US 412 came first in 1982, replacing state routes in Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. It is located nowhere near US 12, either now or in history.

US 425 came in 1989, replacing AR-13 and LA-137 for 225 miles.

Finally, US 400 was commissioned in 1994 to basically cross the state of Kansas and not much else. A small section of this route was once US-154, before being downgraded to a state route (K-154), which then became a section of US-400. Why not just renumber the entirety US-154 again?

As large and as old as the US Route system is, there is bound to be a few highways which no longer conform to the original rules of the system. For most people, as long as the roads are in good shape, the numbers on the roads don't matter a whole lot, but for those of us who understand the system and its development, discovering the oddities are an interesting hobby.

Thanks as always for reading the blog, and let me know if there's any other US Route anomalies you find interesting!