Good public transit is the hallmark of a civilized city. One of the things I love most about Chicago is the train system. Both the Chicago Transit Authority’s “L” and the Regional Transportation Authority’s Metra are fantastic examples of how efficiently people can be transported from hither to yon. You can, if you wish, take this with a grain of salt seeing as I hail from the Pacific Northwest where public transportation is craptastic, save for the stellar ferry system. But it’s more than just getting to work or the grocery store that makes me loves these trains—it’s the history. Most people would find it impossible to conjure an image of Chicago without also envisioning the elevated train line that rings our downtown. This is why last weekend, my friends and I headed to Union, Illinois to visit the Illinois Railway Museum.
The IRM’s grounds are much bigger than I was expecting and are designed for visitors to spend the day there. There are pick nick tables and a little diner that sells burgers and hot dogs. There are nice, clean restrooms and vending machines with water and pop. Bring sunscreen and sun hats, though. Museum to me says “inside,” so I was surprised by how active the site is and how much time we spent outdoors. There is a 15 minutes trolley ride that coveys its passengers around the perimeter of the museum grounds. You can get off and on at any stop. It’s a great way to get your bearings and see what the museum has to offer. The old CTA trolley is one of the originals that ran in the Loop until the trolleys were replaced by buses in the late 1940’s The interior is meticulously restored complete with excellent original advertisements, pretty much exactly like the ones on the Red Line today, except cooler because they’re vintage.
In addition to the trolley, there are working trains that run on tracks at the edge of the grounds. The collection includes electric, steam, and diesel trains but they are run only on certain days, so if there’s a particular train you’d like to ride, be sure to check the schedule. The train rides are included in admission and take about 40 minutes each. The day we were there, two trains were running, which we didn’t budget our time for. There are also Thomas the Tank Engine Days throughout August. I’m not exactly sure what that means, but the website makes it seem very popular and there are, of course, train rides for the kiddies.
In the center of the museum grounds are large pole buildings that each hold numerous train cars. There are many different kinds of train cars: passenger, sleeper, roomette, dining, and bar car. These cars are from different manufactures and over many years. Passing from one car to another is like moving through time. I enjoyed seeing the cars with the crappy 80s facelift. Many looked as if they had just been pulled out of service. But of course, the old ones were the most fun. The little tiny roomettes!!! The Transformers of sleeper cars. My favorite cars were the oldest ones that had not been restored. These you couldn’t walk through, but could only view from behind a rope. Part of what is so interesting about these is to be able to see how the patterns of wear, what had disintegrated, and what looked new.
Scattered throughout the building and grounds are other attendant train paraphernalia. I was outraged to see my train, the train that stops on my block used to run to Milwaukee. I’d heard this before from a conductor, but to see the map with my own eyes was somehow different.
The Illinois Railway Museum is a fun day out for everyone. Well, everyone who likes public transportation. The entrance fee is about the most confusing thing I’ve ever seen. There are free days, many days it’s ten bucks, except during the peak season, when it’s more, and it costs more on days when there are special events. They also have a family maximum fee of fifty bucks, which might be good if you’ve got a passel of kids. Check it out for yourself. You will never take your commute to work for granted again.