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  • Union Pacific's Geneva Sub


    LEFT: At twilight an eastbound freight, with C&NW S040-2 G8Gl leading, slides by MW crossovers at Meredith, III., on Aug. 17, 1994. RIGHT: In 1981, semaphores still protected the Milwaukee Road's Moline to Savanna line crossing at East Clinton, III. In this view two S045s lead westbound No. 391 on Jan. 24, 1981.
    Pacific RailNews - December 1995 - Page 24 Pacific RailNews - December 1995 - Page 25

    A guide to the changing former C&NW across Illinois

    Text and photography by John Leopard

    Linking North Western station in Chicago - the point from which the Chicago & North Western once measured its miles - to the yard at Clinton, Iowa, is a busy railroad known today as Union Pacific's Geneva Sub. As this article was being prepared this fascinating stretch of railroad was undergoing many changes, a result of the recent UP-C&NW merger.


    With the completion of America's first transcontinental railroad in 1869, railroads that did not reach UP's eastern terminus at Omaha/Council Bluffs quickly built routes in that direction. As a result of this over-building, there were no less than six Class I carriers vying for tonnage in the Chicago to Omaha market by the early years of this century. The majority of traffic moving to Omaha was destined for interchange with Union Pacific's Overland Route and points West, yet the list of trans-Iowa main lines included Illinois Central; Chicago Great Western; Chicago, Burlington & Quincy; Milwaukee Road; Rock Island; and Chicago &North Western.

    Construction of C&NW's line west from Chicago can be traced to a predecessor, the Galena & Chicago Union. Thwarted in their attempt to reach the northern Illinois mining town of Galena (Illinois Central got there first in 1854), G&CU's directors refocused their sights on construction of a trunk line from Chicago to Council Bluffs, Iowa. Tracks were built west from Chicago across the Illinois prairies, reaching the east bank of the Mississippi River - a significant obstacle to the railroad - at Fulton, Ill., in 1855. Ferry service was maintained until 1865 when a bridge was completed across the river to Clinton, Iowa, by which time G&CU had been succeeded by the Chicago &North Western Railway Company. Chartered in June 1859, the C&NW reached Council Bluffs by 1867, and thus became an instrumental link in hauling construction materials for building of the transcontinental railroad.

    To cope with rapid increases in both freight and passenger traffic, the C&NW began laying a second main track beyond the end of the Chicago commuter district in 1884. By 1890 the work had reached De Kalb, and by 1902 the entire Chicago to Council Bluffs route was double tracked.

    In 1901, C&NW began construction of a route south from the main line at Nelson to Peoria. Eventually this line reached East St. Louis via a connection with the Litchfield &Madison Railway. As a result Nelson was an important railroad town, featuring a large yard and roundhouse.

    North Western's east-west mainline was an important component in the famed Overland Route along with the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads. This key corridor experienced a tremendous traffic boom as the nation expanded west. Name passenger trains included the Chicago-San Francisco Overland Flyer, which began operation in 1887, The Overland Limited, and later a fleet of famous City streamliners that began operation in the 1930s.

    In the early 1960s, Union Pacific was eyeing the Rock Island Lines as an alternate means to reach Chicago, and in 1964 UP filed an application with the Interstate Commerce Commission to merge with the granger railroad. A UP-RI alliance would have had a disastrous effect on C&NW's Chicago-Council Bluffs bridge traffic, and as a result C&NW management vigorously fought the UP-RI union. Unlike the swift mergers of recent times, this case dragged on for nearly a decade. In the time between the merger announcement and the ICC's approval in 1973, the Rock's physical plant had greatly deteriorated and UP had lost interest. The North Western's east-west main line might look very different today if the UP and Rock had merged; the North Western main might be host to a one-train-per-day regional carrier and the Rock Island main might have the lion's share of UP traffic.

    Following the Rock Island disappointment, Union Pacific renewed and strengthened its relations with C&NW. In 1973 the two railroads introduced a number of run-through trains, including two pairs of premium West Coast piggyback trains known as the Falcons. This intermodal partnership continued to evolve and, in March 1984, North Western and U P began operating double stack service for American President Lines between Chicago and Los Angeles. The UP and C&NW partnership began to develop in other ways. North Western was successful in locating several major coal-fired power plants along its lines in the 1970s.

    The Kress Road overpass in West Chicago provides a good view of Metra operations and freight traffic. On May 7, 1994, Metra commuter trains await rush hour as a C&NW train passes the Toyota auto distribution center, seen to the right.
    Pacific RailNews - December 1995 - Page 26

    At that time, low-sulfur western coal was interchanged at Council Bluffs with both UP and Burlington Northern. Coal became a more important player when C&NW reached the Powder River Basin via subsidiary Western Rail Properties in 1984; a portion of this coal moved from the mines in the basin eastward via UP's Nebraska raceway to the C&NW at Council Bluffs, Iowa. Today, Powder River coal represents a considerable amount of traffic on the Geneva Sub.

    Union Pacific gradually increased its financial stake in the C&NW and merged with the granger railroad in the spring of 1995, by which time most of the traffic moving over C&NW - often more than 25 freight trains per day each way - was from, or destined for, the Union Pacific. In the years immediately prior to the merge; Union Pacific locomotives had become a common daily sight on the east-west main; in 1995 they are the norm, although C&NW-painted power still shows up - for now.

    Provisio - Freight Hub

    Once proclaimed by C&NW as the "world's largest freight yard," Proviso was the North Western's most important facility. More than five miles long, divided into nine separate yards, and including a 59-track hump classification yard, Proviso-completed in 1929-is located in Bellwood, a suburb 13 miles west of the Chicago loop. Although an increase in run-through traffic had reduced the importance of Proviso yard in recent years, it still plays a crucial role moving traffic on the former North Westem. Here cars are classified for destinations all over the system. In October 1989, C&NW's second Chicago intermodal terminal - called Global Two (Global One is located just west of the Loop)-opened for business at Proviso. Global Two serves several important intermodal customers, including K Line and Maersk Line. The expansion of Global Two in 1993 led to the removal of three of Proviso's yard tracks; since the merger, UP has begun diverting some classification work to the Belt Railway's Clearing Yard, presumably to make space for more intermodal capacity.

    East of Proviso yard is Provo Junction (honoring the late C&NW president Larry Provo), an interchange track with Indiana Harbor Belt's main line to Blue Island. This important connection greatly eases North Western's access to Conrail and points East. Immediately after its completion in November 1978, a fleet of run-through trains was established between Union Pacific, C&NW and Conrail which utilized the Indiana Harbor Belt and this connection.

    Suburban Territory

    Burlington Northern Santa Fe's former CB&Q main line is not the only in Chicagoland to feature a commuter train-intense, triple tracked main line. North Western's "West Line," as it is known to Metra commuters , is also a high-density triple track route. This particularly scenic line winds through pleasant western suburbs, featuring a tree-lined right-of-way and broad curves at Glen Ellyn and Wheaton. For those interested in following the line a CHICAGO TRIBUNE map - available at most local convenience stores - is a valuable investment; it is the best guide available for following the tracks through the Chicago suburbs.

    An eastbound Metra commuter train, and a westbound C&NW freight led by S040-2 6852, meet in front of the West Chicago Metra station. This Sept. 21, 1994, view was taken from the Wilson Avenue overpass.
    Pacific RailNews - December 1995 - Page 27

    The railroad's main line has four tracks from the Clinton Street interlocking at milepost 0.4 to Kedzie Avenue, milepost 3.6. From this point to Vale, milepost 10, the railroad is a three-track-CTC (Centralized Traffic Control) main line. Between Vale and HM (one of several control points on this line that retains its old telegraph station call letters), the railroad has just two main tracks. West of HM interlocking, at the western throat of the yard in Elmhurst, the railroad again features three main tracks, remaining that way for 17 miles to WX interlocking in West Chicago.

    West Chicago (November 1994 PRN) was once known as Turner Junction. The volume of activity - in the form of heavy freight trains and Metra commuter trains - coupled with a variety of excellent vantage points, make West Chicago one of the best places to view C&NW activity in Chicagoland. A new commuter station is just off Main Street, and there are two overpasses on either side of the depot - one at Route 59, another at Wilson Avenue. A talking hot box detector is located one mile east of the depot, at milepost 29. West of Wilson Avenue is the old commuter depot, JB Tower, a manned tower that protects the crossing with the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern as well as the east throat of West Chicago yard (including a junction with the C&NW's Belvidere Branch to Belvidere and Rockford, Ill.).

    Some freights stop at West Chicago to work the yard which supports nearby industries. Most of the time a switch job is kept busy working the yard. The West Chicago yard also stores Metra commuter train sets used on the West Line, and on weeknights and weekends bi-level sets are cleaned, serviced and stored at the west end of the yard. A good place to view operations at the west end of the yard is the Kress road overpass; beneath the bridge is WX interlocking, the end of three-track territory. To the south is a Toyota automobile distribution center, destination for many loaded auto racks arriving from the Pacific Northwest.

    Across the Cornfields

    Moving west, the railroad takes on an entirely different character. Between WX in West Chicago and Nelson, Ill., the railroad is comprised of two reverse-signaled main tracks controlled by CTC. Between Nelson, Ill., and Clinton, Iowa, the railroad is operated as a traditional, directional double track, except that trains run left handed-a long standing North Western practice, one that may eventual succumb to UP operating procedures. In conjunction with CTC, Automatic Train Control (ATC) is used from Chicago to Clinton. ATC utilizes cab signals in lieu of wayside signals outside of CTC territory, and as a result the only signals along the line west of Nelson are located at dispatcher control points.

    The Geneva Sub is relatively easy to access across central Illinois. In the 67 miles between West Chicago and Dixon, Ill., Route 38 offers the best choice for following the railroad, as it runs roughly parallel to the tracks. The railroad crosses the Fox River at the subdivision's name sake of Geneva, Ill. - presently the western terminus of Metra service (although future plans call for passenger service to be extended an additional nine miles to Elburn, and someday, perhaps even all the way to De Kalb). East of the Fox River, Route 25 crosses the tracks on a bridge that provides a nice overhead view looking west.

    The railroad then climbs out of the Fox River Valley, passing through rolling, forested countryside until it reaches Elburn. Along the way, just west of La Fox, there is a wooden camel back bridge which carries Harley Road over the tracks.


    UP has let its presence be known; three GE's roll a westbound away from the morning sun at La Fox, III., on Sept. 18, 1994. TOP: On Sept. 2, 1979, the trackage through Nelson looked like it could use lawn care instead of a ballast regulator. An eastbound destined for Proviso Yard passes below the coaling tower. C&NW 8518 leads a wall of Evergreen doublestacks eastbound through Union Grove, III., on May 10, 1993.
    Pacific RailNews - December 1995 - Page 28 Pacific RailNews - December 1995 - Page 29

    This rural crossing is a pleasant place to view the never-ending parade of trains. Four miles west of Elburn, at milepost 48, High way 38 crosses over the tracks. Recently the pole line along the tracks was removed, making views from these bridges more photogenic. A defect detector is at mile post 46.1, just east of the Route 38 bridge.

    De Kalb, III., home of Northern Illinois University, is one of the more interesting locations on the Geneva Sub. East of downtown a large concrete coal tower straddles the main line, a remnant from the steam era. Here UP's Troy Grove Branch diverges southward to its namesake city, where this lightweight branch serves an important silica sand customer. Service is normally provided by a weekday local out of West Chicago.

    West of De Kalb, the railroad climbs a slight grade to Creston, the highest point on the Geneva Sub. It is then a steady .7 grade downhill, through the double crossovers at RX and into Rochelle. Eastbound this ruling grade frequently slows heavy trains to a crawl be tween Clinton and Chicago.

    Rochelle, Dixon and Nelson

    At Rochelle a brick depot serves as base for the area's maintenance crews. A couple blocks west of the depot is a diamond crossing with Burlington Northern Santa Fe's Chicago-Twin Cities main line. This busy interlock ing was automated in December 1965, and a short time later the old brick control tower was torn down. Because of the density and variety of traffic provided by both BNSF and Union Pacific, Rochelle is a prime northern Illinois train watching spot. Convenient parking is available just north of the diamonds.

    West of Rochelle, farmlands dominate the track side scenery and the right-of-way is nearly tangent and level as the railroad passes through Ashton, Franklin Grove and Nachusa. Nachusa features a CTC-controlled double crossover.

    At Dixon the tracks drop downgrade through a pair of reverse curves. The Route 26 bridge is a good place to watch and listen as eastbound trains struggle upgrade out of the Rock River Valley. In the steam era, North Western considered Dixon's .7 percent compensated grade (meaning the grade calculation is adjusted for curvature) a troublesome climb for eastbound freights, and thus the "Lee County Cutoff" was constructed between Nelson and Nachusa, effectively bypassing Dixon Hill. The more powerful diesels of the early 1950s rendered the cutoff obsolete, and it was abandoned in 1956.

    A spur known as the Dixon River Track winds through downtown Dixon - including some street running - to a large cement plant on the northeast side of town. This cement dealer has its own ex-Nickel Plate Road Alco S-2 switcher. West of Dixon, Rock Island Road follows the tracks towards Nelson, Ill.

    Nelson, where UP's Peoria Sub (former C&NW St. Louis Sub) diverges to the south, features another large coal tower over the main line, though of a different style than the one at De Kalb. This steam-era remnant serves no useful purpose to the railroad, but it does provide a fine backdrop for photos. A small yard located south of town, along the St. Louis Sub, once sported a round-the-clock switcher, seven days a week. Numerous through trains stopped to pick up or set out cars which were rounded up by two locals originating in Nelson; today much of this activity is gone. NY Tower, which once controlled movements through here, was torn down in 1985; the remainder of the yard is used only for car storage. Numerous signal bridges in the area provide a clue as to train movements, although they are not as informative as the friendly tower operators at NY.

    One of the most scenic areas along the Geneva Sub can be found in Sterling. East of town the tracks cross a mile-long fill separating the Rock River and Sinnissippi Lake. A good view can be found at the fill's west end near the Sterling Public Waterworks.

    At Sterling, Geneva Sub rails pass the sprawling Northwestern Steel and Wire Company steel mill, famous for operating ex-Grand Trunk 0-8-0 steam switchers as late as 1980. Now a fleet of EMD SW1001s works the complex; a yard crew is kept busy most days, switching inbound cars of scrap and out bound finished products from the steel mill.

    Continuing west, U.S. Highway 30 crosses the tracks at Agnew - offering a good view of morning east bounds - then runs parallel for the remaining 20 miles to Clinton. A C&NW depot sits in Morrison, Ill., one of only a handful left along the railroad. Highway 30 crosses the tracks again at Union Grove. West of town there is a detector at milepost 127.9. Five miles west of Union Grove, Burlington Northern Santa Fe's Galesburg to Savanna main line vaults over both the C&NW and Highway 30.

    On May 6, 1993, an eastbound doublestack led by two UP SD6OMs rolls west of Dixon, III., and passes through cornfields, the most prevalent scenery of the Geneva Sub.
    Pacific RailNews - December 1995 - Page 30

    It is fast, straight running along the Mississippi River flood plain for the remaining five miles to East Clinton, Ill. A small stub-ended yard in East Clinton is used to hold grain trains-which are unloaded at a nearby barge trans loading facility-and to store bad order and wrecked freight equipment awaiting a trip through the extensive car shops located across the river in Clinton, Iowa.

    A large, double-track steel swing bridge, completed in 1909, crosses the mighty Mississippi River. North Western's first bridge over the "Father of Waters" opened here in 1865. This bridge was a mile-long, single-track timber and iron structure featuring a 300-foot-long swing span.

    After crossing into Iowa, CP Rail's Davenport Sub crosses the UP main in front of Clinton's large brick station at Fifth Street. The crossovers here are controlled by UP's Illinois dispatcher in Chicago (subject to change shortly). CP Rail trains, while on the approach, will call the North Western dispatcher to get lined through.

    West of town - at appropriately-named West Yard Illinois and Iowa division crews exchange trains. Three to five switchers can be found operating in the area during each shift, with a nearby Archer Daniels Mid land corn processing plant keeping a few of these switchers busy. ADM can account for nearly 17,000 carloads of business each year.

    The Future

    As Chicago & North Western operations are consolidated into those of the Union Pacific, there will be continued changes along the Geneva Sub. Soon after the merger was consummated, the North Western motive power fleet began operating across UP's far-flung western empire. As a result, solid lashups of C&NW locomotives are less likely to be found on the east west main line. North Western's dispatchers are in the process of being relocated to Omaha.

    Anyone taking a look at Union Pacific's main lines will notice a right-of-way virtually free of traditional railroad structures. Thus it is not difficult to believe that any remaining Chicago & North Western landmarks will soon disappear. The astute observer may wish to record the coal towers at De Kalb and Nelson, along with various railroad-owned depots along the route-including those at De Kalb, Rochelle and Clinton. North Western's signaling also warrant attention, as many of the older General Railway Signal searchlight type signals will likely be replaced.

    In the long run, Union Pacific ownership will guarantee a secure future for this route. UP has a record of maintaining its property well and of increasing the amount of traffic traveling over its routes. Union Pacific's public relations department is one of the most progressive in the industry. UP ownership has already brought the Armour Yellow Es , which operated several round trips between Chicago and Clinton in August 1995; Next year may see a visit from a UP steam celebrity. Unlike other area rail roads, which have let their images languish, the Union Pacific will let its presence be known - and with style.

    Thanks to Mike Abalos and Mike Blaszak.


    The coaling tower on the Geneva Sub still stands - albeit a bit beat up - at De Kalb, III. On Sept. 18, 1994, a UP SD60M leads an eastbound under the venerable structure.
    Pacific RailNews - December 1995 - Page 31

    Article Details

    • Original Author John Leopard
    • Source Pacific RailNews
    • Publication Date 1995

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  • j neu
    j neu thank you tasha. if you're still around to see this, please give a little help. trying to find some sort of schedule for the u.p. geneva subdivision. considering buying a house a block away. want to get some idea of how much traffic and when to expec...  more
    March 13, 2013