Happening Now

Reframing the Debate in Chicago

August 17, 2013

Written By Malcolm Kenton

Millennial Trains Project participants had a relaxed Wednesday morning riding into Chicago aboard the California Zephyr, watching the sun-dappled farm fields and small towns of Iowa and Illinois whisk by and give way to suburbs, and finally the skyscrapers, factories and massive freight rail yards of the Windy City, the nation's railroad hub. We took in iconic views of the Midwestern countryside from the Silver Lariat's dome and enjoyed the fresh breezes through the open Dutch doors in the vestibules.

Image by Librarygroover on Flickr.com. Better photos to come--unable to upload at this time due to poor Internet access.
Image by Librarygroover on Flickr.com. Better photos to come--unable to upload at this time due to poor Internet access.

Due to its location as the southwesternmost port on the Great Lakes and a connecting point between East and West, every railroad that served a wide area of the country eventually built a line to Chicago, making it a center of domestic commerce—it has almost always been a point at which one must change trains to complete a transcontinental trip. It is also the city in which NARP was founded and first headquartered, and where NARP's 50th Anniversary celebration will take place in 2017. So it is fitting that we would spend two and a half days there.

Upon arrival at Chicago Union Station, I spent some time interviewing Amtrak travelers who were waiting in the magnificent Great Hall. I encountered a group of about 20 middle-aged African-American women who were touring the country by train as a travel group, in coach the whole way. They said they were really enjoying the experience, but had several complaints about service quality, particularly lack of legroom and the condition of the restrooms.

I then headed out to the diverse Logan Square neighborhood, about 5 miles northwest of the Loop on diagonal Milwaukee Avenue, to a shared office space above a fitness center for our evening social. There, Maryanne Roberts, media relations manager forBombardier Transportation USA, introduced me to Cesar Vergara, a longtime designer of railcars who has worked on a litany of projects around the world. He is currently involved in designing the next-generation bilevel coaches that are being produced for theMidwest and California corridors. He emphasized the importance of design in all things—whether it's presenting a vision for the train of the future, or designing handouts for NARP or for a particular campaign.

The evening's speaker was Yonah Freemark, long-time blogger at The Transport Politic, who now works for the Metropolitan Planning Council, Chicago's oldest organization promoting smart city planning. His presentation covered all areas of how Chicago's built environment is and is not working, but focused particularly on transportation. He emphasized bus rapid transit as a supposedly more economical way to deliver high-quality transit to more of the city, but also spoke to the importance of intercity connections and walkable suburbs around commuter rail stations—something Chicagoland has in abundance.

After an adventure trying to locate our private cars in Amtrak's giant Chicago maintenance yard, we finally got to bed around 11:30. I caught up on sleep and missed Thursday's Idea Morning, which focused on global water issues. I got up at 8:00, walked up a spiral staircase from the yard to the Roosevelt Avenue bridge, and east to the 11th Street/Museum Center station on the MetraElectric District, currently the only electrified commuter rail line in the US outside of the East Coast (along with the South Shore Linebetween Chicago and South Bend, IN, which shares Metra's track between Kensington and downtown Chicago), running along the former Illinois Central right-of-way (also used by Amtrak's City of New Orleans, Illini and Saluki along with Canadian National freight—Metra owns the electrified tracks and CN owns the non-electrified ones). I hopped aboard a 1970s-built bilevel EMU gallery car and took a 25-minute ride south to 111th Street-Pullman station.

Since I arrived an hour before the museums were to open, I did my own walking tour of the neighborhood that started as a planned community for the workers at George Pullman's factory, which was the nation's primary builder of railcars, particularly sleeping cars as well as urban transit cars, from the 1880s to the mid 1920s. The factory and the Pullman Company's Hotel Florence are still intact (though closed to the public and undergoing renovation of undetermined length of time), and parts remain of the original market building, but the Arcade—the nation's first indoor mall—is gone, replaced by a small building that houses the Historic Pullman Visitors Center.

The Visitors Center gave a nice lay of the land for the community, and displayed some intriguing Pullman Company artifacts. The proprietor asked me to sign a petition card to Congress asking for Pullman to become Chicago's first National Park, which I did. I then walked eight blocks north on Cottage Grove Avenue, parallel to the former IC tracks and past the Pullman factory headhouse, to a former 3-story home that now houses the A. Phillip Randolph Pullman Porters Museum.

The Porters Museum was light on artifacts, but laid out the timeline of the formation, struggle, dormancy, and eventual recognition of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters—one of the first successful African-American labor unions, one of the forces behind the emergence of a black middle class, and a key organization in the development of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. I had a good interview with the Museum's founder and CEO, Dr. Lyn Hughes. She was enthusiastic about the prospect of revitalizing America's passenger train system.

After spending some time at 1871, our group's hub space for the day (named for the year of the Great Chicago Fire, which forced the city to be reinvented, and located inside the Merchandise Mart, the world's second-largest office building behind the Pentagon), we returned to Union Station and held our daily leadership development session in the Great Hall. Thursday was my day to present my “trigger statement” and question to the group, and I got a lot of great feedback that has motivated me to press harder for novel approaches to achieving the goal of more and better passenger trains—which involves reframing the debate around transportation policy so that it is no longer a question that rail should be capitalized to the same extent that highways and aviation are.

We boarded our cars, now attached to the eastbound Capitol Limited, 40 minutes before its departure. While watching a brilliant sunset over northwestern Indiana from the dome, we heard from Mike Oreskes, Vice President and Chief Managing Editor at theAssociated Press and acclaimed author. He led a broad discussion about the future of American democracy in an age when facts are becoming less important and the Internet means people lack a shared source of information that engages citizens on a variety of issues. This is a challenge that will require addressing on a much larger scale than single advocacy groups can handle.

After a hearty dinner, I rested well as the train sped across the flat land of northern Indiana and Ohio towards Pittsburgh, our trip's second-to-last stop.

Malcolm Kenton