I’ve become fascinated with the oddball of the Chicago Transit Authority’s light rail system, the Yellow Line – aka the Skokie Swift. It’s such a mismatched, out of place beast that I have to stop and stare every time I come across it.
The trains are just two cars, two lonely little tiny cars rolling along all by themselves like lost sheep, wandering innocently past suburban lawns and parks and back yards and arterial roads. They’re so cute! You just want to pinch their little metal cheeks.
Whether it’s running at grade between 1950s backyards, flying above a river on a trestle, or roaring through a forest in a below-grade cut, the Yellow Line just leaves me wondering: what is it doing here? What are grungy CTA cars doing out in the June Cleaver suburbia of Skokie? Did they get lost or something??
The Swift is a relic of an aborted idea, back when people and governments hadn’t quite completely given up on mass transit. Surely light rail could find a way to work in the suburbs, right? And so this line was activated in the 1960s on 5 miles of semi-abandoned right-of-way that had passed from a defunct private transit company to the CTA. The Skokie Swift served a test bed to see what was possible out in the new suburban frontier. The notion was that a really fast, no-stops, no-frills run from a suburban center into Chicago could be a viable transit model.
And it worked pretty well – better than expected, in fact. Ridership was higher than predicted, enough so that the train still runs every 10 minutes or so daily. But it wasn’t such a success that the model was replicated; the Swift remains a one-of-a-kind line in Chicago, rivaled only by the Purple Line for its strange intrusion into suburban woodlands.
Part of the Skokie Swift’s fascination is that so many relics of the past remain in place. Much of the western half of the line still passes under the catenary poles that once held overhead wires, used when the line was electrified from above. The lines were taken down when full third-rail service was added in 2004, but the poles remain.
The right of way is also quasi-industrial, lined with huge power lines that give the line a sort of apocalyptic feeling. The train is taking you to wherever it is that all these electrical lines go, and when you get to that ominous, distant place, who knows what fate might befall you? Maybe you’ll be made into electricity, too.
When you finally do reach the end of the line, it’s a surreal spot – a seemingly random point, surrounded by parking lots and light suburban commercial buildings, not enough to constitute a downtown or village center, or even much of a place at all.
Across the street, the power lines continue their relentless march northward, beckoning for an expansion of the line. That expansion is in the planning phases at present.
The other part of the fascination is, as mentioned, how strangely out of place the Swift is. It’s a tiny train running through huge places, running on towering trestles and over hugely busy roads like McCormick. CTA cars mostly run in cramped quarters in the city – tight subway tunnels, or squeezed between residential streets with houses so close that residents can almost touch the track structure from their windows. Their compact, no-nonsense design reflects this, and looks very strange in all the open space of Skokie.
And so the trains just look sort of… lost. I want to call out to the outbound ones: “What’s the matter, little fella? You lost? You looking for Chicago? You wanna go the other way!”