The first rail service from Aurora to Chicago in 1850 chugged north from Aurora to the G&CU tracks (now the UP West) and then east to Chicago. When that line got too congested, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy built their own direct line, which opened with passenger service in 1864. Over the years, the name of the owner changed to Burlington Northern to Burlington Northern Santa Fe to BNSF. This line was the first to use bi-level coaches, built by Budd in 1950. BNSF dispatches trains from Ft. Worth, Texas. BNSF timetables are “Kelly Green” or “Cascade Green” for the color used on BNSF freight locomotives.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the western suburbs served by the BNSF line grew up with the railroad and that the railroad grew up with the suburbs. The two have been intricately linked since the very beginning, nearly 150 years ago.
The route had its origins in 1850 with a 12-mile railroad that connected Aurora to the recently completed Galena & Chicago Union, now the UP West Line, in what is now West Chicago. The Aurora Branch Line allowed trains from Aurora to head north to the G&CU and then east into Chicago. By 1855, the branch line became part of the Chicago Burlington & Quincy.
That route, however, proved to be short-lived. Traffic on the G&CU became so heavy that it moved to terminate its trackage rights agreement with the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy to make way for more of its own trains. After trying to buy one of the two G&CU tracks, the Burlington decided instead to build its own direct route to Chicago.
Work began during the Civil War in October 1862. There were many hurdles, including the high cost of labor due to the war, a harsh winter that year and a “seemingly bottomless bog” between Hinsdale and Western Springs that had to be filled in. The work was done by May 1864, at a cost of about $1 million.
Although passenger trains started operating on the line immediately, the first trains primarily carried milk, hay and wheat to Chicago from small agricultural towns such as Naperville, Downers Grove, Hinsdale and La Grange. However, the towns soon began to take on a more residential character, with businessman from Chicago moving in. By the end of the decade, the first trains catering to commuters to and from Chicago started operating, and the towns along the line began to grow into the suburbs we know today.
The 1871 Chicago Fire further highlighted the advantages of living in the suburbs. (The Burlington’s offices at 2 S. Water were destroyed; but company records survived in a fireproof safe.) In the years following the fire, real estate developers and the railroad promoted suburban life over living in the city.
In 1881, Burlington trains began to use the original Union Station at Canal and Adams. Before this time, Burlington used the Illinois Central station at Randolph and Michigan, reaching the IC’s tracks via the St. Charles Air Line. In 1925, its trains started to use the current Union Station.
Other notable events in the BNSF Line’s history include:
1934: Burlington debuted its stainless steel, diesel-powered Zephyr “streamliner” locomotive in stylish fashion – it covered 1,015 miles from Denver to Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition in 13 hours, 5 minutes, half the time of a conventional train. The Zephyrs never pulled suburban trains, but diesel engines were here to stay – and the lightweight stainless steel was soon adopted for passenger cars.
1950: Burlington became the first Chicago area railroad to use stainless steel, bi-level, air-conditioned gallery cars, setting the standard for Chicago commuter rail lines. The “Suburbanaire Service” cars enabled Burlington to expand capacity without the need for more trains or longer trains. Some of the cars from the 1950s, manufactured by Budd, are still in use.
1952: The railroad completed the replacement of steam locomotives with diesel engines on the suburban line. At this time it also moved its Downers Grove terminal operation to Aurora, which resulted in more train service for the towns west of Downers Grove.
1965: Burlington started to use a push-pull operation into and out of Union Station.
1970: The Burlington Northern was formed by the merger of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, Great Northern, Northern Pacific and Spokane Portland & Seattle. Also that year, the railroad adopted a new schedule with more express trains to and from far western suburbs.
1972: The West Suburban Mass Transit District was formed by communities along the line to help BN secure funding for capital improvements.
1973: Area voters approved the creation of the Regional Transportation Authority to assist all public transportation.
1983: The RTA Act was amended; Metra and Pace were created.
1996: BN merged with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway to form BNSF Railway.
Today, BNSF Railway still owns the BNSF line, and operates the commuter rail service with its own crews under a purchase-of-service agreement with Metra. It is by far the busiest line on the system, providing 16.4 million of Metra’s 81.6 million passenger trips in 2015. (The UP-NW was second, with 11.3 million trips.)