What It’s Like Riding Every Metra Line to Its Endpoint
Check out John Greenfield’s travelogue of biking to the suburban endpoint of every Metra line here.
It took years living in Chicago for my obsession with Metra to take hold; though I rode the entire CTA ‘L’ train system early on, it didn’t occur to me to try commuter trains for years. Seeing photos and meeting transit fans online eventually piqued my interest; by the end of 2008 I’d taken most Metra lines to the end, and since have slowly added the stations I hadn’t yet seen.
I’ve been at it so long it’s obvious to me that exploring suburbs and satellite cities of Chicagoland is as interesting as exploring city neighborhoods, but I realize many don’t share this view. From years traversing the entire Metra system, I know few stops are the bland, entirely-car-dependent land use many people paint all suburbia as (and those are generally ones with “Road” or “Route” in the name). Many Metra stations are in downtowns still full of historic buildings and independent businesses.
Perhaps it stems from growing up in an Iowa college town surrounded by farmland, and relatively little transit, where my only way to visit other towns was to have someone drive, but being able to easily get to dozens of unique communities in a weekend if I want for the cost of a Metra or CTA/Pace pass never gets old.
And Metra became more appealing to use over the years as bicycles were allowed on some trains, newer cars have outlets, and phone maps and apps make it much easier to know about transit delays or if a station has walkable attractions. A weekend pass (usually for unlimited Sat.-Sun. rides) is no longer the incredible bargain of $5 (its price for over 20 years!) but is cheaper than weekday trips. Nearly all my Metra travel is on weekends; trains run less often, but I avoid hassles of rush-hour commuting. Stations vary widely in style and comfort; most non-Loop Chicago stations aren’t much more than platforms with shelters. But every terminal station has a heated area to wait during operating hours, if not always restrooms, water fountains, or outlets for passengers.
I wanted to finally finish seeing the whole system and ride all lines to the end in 2018. I saw most earlier in the year, but two weekday-only terminals eluded me till late: Big Timber Road and McHenry. (I didn’t include South Shore commuter rail in this project as it’s not part of Metra, but I enjoy it too and had a fine summer trip to Michigan City, Indiana.)
Union Pacific North: Kenosha
Kenosha, Wisconsin is my favorite long Metra trip. Cheap travel to another state with plenty to see: museums, breweries, a pie shop, a tiki bar… Kenosha was my first Metra terminal trip of the year; I used my 12/31-1/1 pass and went on the record cold New Year’s Day for a short visit to see holiday decorations and get pizza at a busy bar. On a more substantial trip Feb. 10, the first day Metra increased weekend passes from $8 to $10, I spent a bright Saturday afternoon taking photos and rediscovering the Daniel Burnham-designed public library. I don’t think I’d ever gone inside the station before this trip, for years only waiting on the platform above; it has a kid-oriented train-themed restaurant. I returned to Kenosha several more times in warmer weather; the harbor on Lake Michigan is lovely.
Union Pacific Northwest: Harvard
I use UP-NW often since I’m not far from the Irving Park station (sometimes to take inbound trains to Ogilvie and switch to other lines), but rarely get as far north as Harvard. On Jan. 6, I visited this small town known for its annual Milk Days festival. Downtown has charming storefronts, a coffeeshop in an old firehouse, and a Mexican grocery, but that very cold night I didn’t have options but trying out neighborhood bars near the station.
BNSF Railway: Aurora
I’ve neglected Aurora in recent years compared to other satellite cities and am overdue for exploring by bicycle or Pace buses, especially now that the city has renovated the riverfront. Jan. 21, a foggy, quiet day, I walked the riverwalk a while before warming up at Two Brothers Roundhouse, with beers in the large dining area, and a coffee for the long ride back. I didn’t make it again till the weekend after Thanksgiving, enjoying holiday-painted store windows, a first visit to the impressive recently rebuilt public library, and a newer coffeeshop.
SouthWest Service: Manhattan
SouthWest Service added Saturday trains in March 2009 and a friend and I went on the very first run, neither of us familiar with its south suburbs at the time. The Manhattan station is surrounded by farmland, a parking lot, and a city park. There’s a few things in town, but you’d be unable to visit with the brief turnaround time (only one round trip outbound on SWS is possible on Saturday) like my visit Jan. 27. Bringing a bicycle and returning via a Rock Island station seems the best bet to truly explore this area.
Metra Electric: 93rd St./South Chicago
Metra Electric runs three branches off its main line from Millennium Station. The 93rd terminal is in a historic far Southeast side neighborhood with several of my favorite kinds of places nearby: a Chicago Public Library branch, a decades-old diner, and an Old Style sign bar. But this evening visit Jan. 28 I just grabbed dinner at the legendary Calumet Fisheries blocks away.
Milwaukee District North: Fox Lake
I’ve gotten much more familiar with this line since living on the Northwest side where it has several stations. Fox Lake’s station is in its small downtown and there are a number of places to get food and drink in walking distance. (Fast-food coffee and lunch to go turned out to be a great idea when my inbound train was mysteriously stalled over a half-hour heading back.) This snowy day, Feb. 11, was quite picturesque, but the best way to enjoy the area is a warm day visiting Fox Lake (the lake), a short bike ride from the station.
Metra Electric: University Park
The same evening I crossed the longest trip on Metra Electric off my list, far south suburban University Park terminal. Not much to see in or near the station, at least not this winter night, except for the 1977 plaque inside. On a pleasant day, this stop would be good to visit with a bicycle for a trip to Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park at Governors State University, or seeing the historic planned community of Park Forest.
Metra Electric: Blue Island
Near south suburb Blue Island is one of my very favorite places in Chicagoland, but I usually get there via Pace buses or Rock Island Metra, not the Metra Electric station across the street. The ME station is a terminal on this branch that runs Mon.-Sat.; Saturday service was recently cut back but not eliminated. I took it for an early afternoon visit Feb. 24 photographing near Western Ave. and buying seasonal treats at a bakery.
Rock Island District: Joliet
Hours after Blue Island, I rode Rock Island from 35th St./“Lou” Jones in Chicago to its end of Joliet, the area busy for years with a construction project to move Metra and Amtrak to a new station. The handsome old Joliet Union Station is now used for special events, and had a new brewpub I checked out. I made several Joliet trips throughout the year for photos in this city rich with industrial and Route 66 history, and seeing eventual league champions Joliet Slammers play baseball in the stadium just across from the station.
Union Pacific West: Elburn
Elburn is an odd case, as I visited the terminal in my original Metra exploration years ago, but missed knowing of the actual town until I helpfully noticed it on my phone map. Then my first attempt to visit failed when I went on a winter day with deep snow, and my phone map unhelpfully told me it was a 50 minute walk. I didn’t want to risk it and waited a long time in the tiny station. Happily by this year’s visit Feb. 25, I knew a trail on the other side of the vast parking lot will lead you to the main commercial street, about a 10 minute walk. There’s a coffeeshop, library, an ice cream stand (in season). This trip I checked out a bar for one of the best burgers I had all year.
Milwaukee District West: Elgin
I’ve been rediscovering Elgin and its downtown with attractive architecture of many eras, an excellent library, a Dr. Who-inspired coffeeshop, an arts scene, etc. I took Metra from Chicago Union Station March 10. I returned a few times in 2018, including with friends to check out fascinating sites on Open Elgin (similar to Open House Chicago). I’ve visited more since Pace started the 603 express bus from Rosemont Blue Line; it can be faster than the train, for a fraction of Metra fare. (Though the train provides much better scenery of railyards and downtowns.)
North Central Service: Antioch
On March 20, a weekday, I took a 1:00 pm train from Union Station to far north Antioch. It’s so close to Wisconsin on a past trip I actually walked to the state line (and an establishment called State Line Inn). I stuck to the greater downtown this sunny day, photographing a variety of architecture and shops and trying a Las Vegas-themed diner. I took Metra back partway to Mundelein and a brewery near the station, then a very long trek of a 574 Pace bus to Hawthorn Mall in Vernon Hills, 272 to Golf Mill Mall in Niles, 270 to Jefferson Park Transit Center, and CTA home.
Heritage Corridor: Joliet
Heritage Corridor is the weekday-only Metra route to Joliet using the same route as Amtrak. I finished the main part of this project by taking the earliest outbound train, 2:45 from Union Station, to visit Joliet Gateway Center on its opening day April 11. I had a little time to see changes in downtown and stop in the Daniel Burnham-designed library. Instead of Rock Island Metra back (Heritage Corridor is only inbound in mornings), another odyssey: Pace bus 832 to Orland Square Mall, and later 379 to Midway station and CTA home.
Milwaukee District West: Big Timber Road
My first-ever trip to this weekday-only extension of MD-W was on my favorite transit day of the year, the one day Metra is guaranteed to run regular weekday schedules on a weekend pass fare, the day after Thanksgiving. (In 2018 Christmas and New Year’s Eve were like this too, with modifications for holiday travel.) I caught MD-W from Western in Chicago to the end, minutes past the regular Elgin stop, at Big Timber Road. There’s a cute small station but little to do or photograph; I wandered as far as the high-speed road (but not across it) and back for an inbound train.
I came back to Union Station to see its Christmas tree installation, and used the pass later that day for more Heritage Corridor: Summit, a longer stay in Lemont (I wish this historic canal town had more transit options), the new Romeoville station (I’d feel bad I missed its opening day in February—new Metra stations are rare—but I was on my first trip to Las Vegas at the time.), and dinner in Joliet before a Rock Island train back.
Union Pacific Northwest: McHenry
I couldn’t get to McHenry until the final day of 2018, with a New Year’s Eve/Day pass. The only possible option by transit was 6:08 am from Irving Park, then a morning or afternoon Pace bus to connect to return from a different Metra station. Only one other person was on my platform and a few in my car. It was getting light when I got into McHenry, but on an early Monday morning that’s also New Year’s Eve, few things I’d marked on my map months ago were open. I had an icy walk through two older business districts and stopped in Walgreens by the station before a Pace bus to Crystal Lake, a Pace bus to Elgin (I was the only passenger on either), MD-W from Elgin to Union Station, NCS to Antioch and back, MD-N back to the Northwest side. Fifteen hours of walking, Metra, Pace, and CTA may be too much transit in one day, even for me. But I ended the year thrilled I made it to my final terminal, and I think the final station I had left to visit in the entire system.