Situated directly south of Chicago in the the gritty suburb of Blue Island, Illinois, this morass of trackage is a must-see for anyone serious about railroading.
Note: there is a tempting parking area on the right just before the tracks. However, it is CSX property, and occasionally CSX police have asked visitors to leave the spot.
The crossing can also be reached by train – if you're willing to do some walking once you reach Blue Island. There are two options:
Take a Metra Rock Island District train from La Salle Street Station at Van Buren and La Salle Streets in downtown Chicago to Vermont Street in Blue Island.
Alternatively, take a Metra Electric (former Illinois Central) train from either Millennium or Van Buren Street stations downtown to the end of the line at Blue Island.
In either case, walk west along Vermont to Western Avenue, then south on Western to Broadway. Use the stairway leading down from the Western overpass to Broadway, and then continue west to the junction. It's about a one-mile trek.
One of the most fascinating rail hotspots anywhere, it's hard to know where to begin a description of it. Let's start by noting that Broadway crosses the entire maze approximately in the middle. Entering from the southeast is the double track CSX main line (owned by subsidiary Baltimore $amp; Ohio Chicago Terminal) coming from Barr Yard. Entering from the south and running alongside CSX for a short distance is the double track Indiana Harbor Belt line from Blue Island Yard. The CSX line then heads directly north into Chicago, while the IHB runs northwest for several miles before heading due north through the western suburbs of Chicago. There is an important crossover between the two lines just south of Broadway. Many CSX trains departing Barr Yard transfer to the IHB at this point, and the northwest line is best thought of as a joint IHB/CSX route (hereafter, the "joint line"). CSX's subsidiary B&OCT actually owns and maintains the track from here to a point a few miles south of LaGrange, Illinois, but IHB dispatches it and is otherwise responsible for its operation. From there north to the line's terminus at Franklin Park, Illinois, IHB owns the line outright.
Entering from the south and heading in a northerly direction into Chicago is the double track Canadian National (ex-Grand Trunk Western) mainline, which crosses the joint line just north of Broadway. Entering the junction from the southwest, and about 30 yards west of CN, is a single track line used by Iowa Interstate and once in a great while by CSX and Chicago Rail Link. This line extends north from the junction and feeds into the joint line. Trains using it sometimes back down the joint line to access Barr and Blue Island Yards. Between the CN and IAIS lines is a connector track, providing access to a small yard just south of the junction.
If the above were all there was, Blue Island would be a great place for trains. But there's more: at the south end of the plant, the Metra (ex-Rock Island) line crosses over the whole mess (Metra is the Chicago commuter train authority and they own the Rock Island tracks between Chicago and Joliet, Illinois). At the southwest corner of the junction, the IAIS track at the west end climbs up to connect with the Metra line.
Blue Island is a busy location even without counting the commuter trains and occasional freights on the Metra Rock Island line overhead. The joint line sees the most action, but the CSX main is busy as well. A small tower on Broadway in the middle of the junction once housed the crossing gates operator but was closed in 2013.
The former interlocking tower is at the far north end of the junction across the Calumet Sag Channel and is clearly visible from Broadway. However, it was shut down in June 2013, and traffic is now handled remotely by CSX dispatchers. All of the tracks at the junction cross the channel on rugged, formidable truss bridges that look like they were built a thousand years ago (and are good for another thousand as well). The bridges on the north and the overhead Rock Island tracks on the south make Blue Island unique among busy junctions here or anywhere else.
Blue Island features a wide diversity of road and transfer movements. BNSF trains are often seen on the joint line, and CP trains using trackage rights traverse the joint line on their way to/from Bensenville Yard northwest of Chicago. In addition to Iowa Interstate, the Belt Railway and Chicago Rail Link occasionally make an appearance. And of course there are always the Metra commuter trains which run hourly on weekdays (more often at rush hours) and every two hours on weekends.
Traffic on the CN main has diminished. CN purchased the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern in 2009 and has rerouted many trains from the ex-GTW west of Griffith onto the former EJ&E main line. As a result, only two to four CN trains a day travel through here between Griffith and Hayford in Chicago. However, in June, 2013 CSX acquired control of the the CN tracks between Chicago and Munster, Indiana by way of an easement negotiated with CN. Consequently, CSX now dispatches and maintains this segment, and several CSX moves per day can now be observed on the GTW tracks. In addition, connections between the CN/CSX tracks and the CSX main into Chicago were built in 2013 about a mile north of the interlocking. CSX trains coming north from Barr Yard can now transfer to CN/CSX for easier access to the Belt Railway's Clearing Yard and CSX's Bedford Park intermodal terminal adjacent to Clearing.
As of 2012 CN has greatly reduced exercising trackage rights on the joint line and CN transfers between IHB/CSX and GTW have dwindled to near zero. Blue Island is not quite as busy as it was before 2012, but there is still plenty of traffic on the CSX main and the joint line.
CN: 160.530, 160.590
CSX: 160.230, 160.320, 160.290
IHB: 160.980, 160.070, 161.565
AccessCN and CSX have posted No Trespassing signs on their property. However, the sidewalks along Broadway are public property and afford a fine view of the action. It's a good idea not to stray from the sidewalks and to stay well clear of the tracks and the heavy traffic on Broadway.
Caution is also a good idea; staying clear of one set of tracks might put you close to another set if you're not careful. In the summer of 2004, new trackwork was installed that enables CSX trains to pass through at higher speeds. You should remain alert at all times.
The junction is laid out north-south, and photography can sometimes be tricky. At most times of the day though, southbound trains are unproblematic. With the bridges as backdrop, this is a very photogenic location. At the south end of the area, it's not uncommon to have a train on the overhead Metra line with another passing underneath. The surrounding neighborhood is definitely blue collar in character but safety is not a serious concern here.
CN also traverses Thornton and Harvey; CSX passes through Calumet Park, Pine, 75th Street and Calumet, and IHB through Calumet Park, Gibson, Argo and Chicago Ridge. For more on Thornton, Harvey and Calumet Park, see South suburbs (various); for Calumet, Pine and Gibson see Northwest Indiana (various). For Argo and Chicago Ridge see West and southwest suburbans (various). See also 75th Street at South Side (various).
|View from Metra elevation circa 1996. This vantage point is now off-limits.
Blue Island and Dolton
Blue Island and Dolton form a matched pair. Each features heavy traffic on CSX and IHB with a third major railroad crossing them — UP at Dolton, CN at Blue Island. Dolton is the eastern gateway to CSX's Barr Yard and IHB's Blue Island Yard, while Blue Island is the western gateway. Both junctions are among the busiest anywhere, with Dolton having a slight edge. Both feature a wide variety of trains, with Blue Island having a slight edge.
The junctions are only about five miles apart. To get to Dolton from Blue Island, take Broadway back to Ashland Avenue. Turn right and go about a half mile to the first stoplight (138th Street). Turn left and head east. About a half mile past Indiana Avenue, you'll come to a stop sign – the crossing street is Lincoln Avenue to the south and Leyden Avenue to the north. Turn right onto Lincoln and proceed over two rail crossings. Turn right immediately after the second one and park in the Dolton City Hall lot alongside the tracks. The northwest quadrant is also a legal viewing area –see the Dolton page for details. 138th Street is paralleled by Barr Yard a half mile to the north and by Blue Island Yard a half mile to the south. To get a bird's eye view of the two yards, turn at Halsted Street (left for Barr, right for Blue Island), which crosses both on viaducts. Halsted is about a mile from the Ashland/138th intersection.