Canal Street wye and Union Avenue

Canal Street wye and Union Avenue


The Canal Street wye and Union Avenue interlocking are less than a half mile apart and within easy walking distance of each other on 16th Street. Both are located just south and west of the downtown area. The Union interlocking can be observed from Metra's Halsted Street station platform at 16th and Halsted.

From the Halsted station you can walk or drive east along 16th Street — passing underneath the Dan Ryan along the way — to Canal Street. At the corner of Canal and 16th, a bridge carries Canal Street over the wye, and affords a bird's eye view of movements through the wye trackage (see the bottom photo).

Of course you can reverse the trip. Start at Canal and 16th, and drive or walk west on 16th to Halsted St. To get to the intersection from downtown, take a westbound street to Canal (Union Station is on Canal between Jackson and Adams), and head south about a mile or so to 16th. Turn right onto 16th and park. From the expressway, take the Roosevelt Road exit and go east to Canal. Then head south on Canal to 16th.

The Railroads

Union Avenue

The Halsted station is on BNSF's ex-Chicago, Burlington & Quincy "racetrack," the triple track main line to Aurora. On the north end of the trackage is a single track line that parallels the racetrack and which rises on a viaduct as it heads east. Known as the St. Charles Air Line, it is one of Chicago's oldest rail lines.

The Air Line is jointly owned by Canadian National (50%), BNSF (25%) and Union Pacific (25%). The Air Line passes over the Metra coach yards and Amtrak service facilities on a viaduct; it then crosses the south branch of the Chicago River and joins the CN/IC line from Iowa at 16th Street Crossing. Trains from the west heading for the CN/IC's Markham Yard and intermodal terminal in the south suburbs use the Air Line, as do Amtrak's City of New Orleans and Illini. To reach the CN/IC main line at the lakefront, the Amtrak trains come south from Union Station, and back around the south leg of the Canal Street wye to the racetrack. They then access the Air Line and take it east to 16th Street, where they reach CN/IC rails. In addition, many Amtrak trains arriving from eastern points come up the south leg of the wye, and then back down the north leg into Union Station.

The racetrack of course sees many commuter trains (known as "dinkies" to railroad personnel), as well as Amtrak's California ZephyrSouthwest Chief and corridor trains to Quincy, Illinois. Freight traffic is not as plentiful here as it is further west, but there are still a fair number of transfers heading to or from BNSF yards to the west. These trains use the south leg of the wye to access the Amtrak/NS Chicago Line that runs south from Union Station. At one time, the Air Line was paralleled on the north by a B&OCT route that also passed over the Metra/Amtrak area and crossed the river on a bridge next to the Air Line's. The bridge and viaduct are still there but the tracks--which carried Baltimore & Ohio, Soo Line, Pere Marquette and Chicago Great Western passenger trains to Grand Central Station--were taken up many years ago. Union Avenue tower once stood on the south side of the racetrack, but it was closed in 1992 and demolished shortly afterward.

In the photograph at the top of this page, you are on the Halsted station platform looking east, with the overhead Dan Ryan Expressway directly in front of you. To the left, you can see the Air Line ascending to the viaduct that carries it over the Amtrak and Metra tracks. The BNSF tracks are descending to the Canal Street wye. In the background is a signal bridge governing movements on the wye's south leg, and behind it is the Canal Street overpass.

Canal Street wye

The accompanying photograph is a drone shot (courtesy of "Jeff") showing the Canal Street wye in full detail. The north leg is on the right and is used by all trains travelling between Union Station and the racetrack. To the left is the south leg, used mainly by transfer freights and Amtrak trains for their backup maneuvers. The wye's eastern leg, seen here with a train approaching Union Station, runs alongside Amtrak's shop buildings. This leg is the continuation of Norfolk Southern's ex-CR, ex-Pennsy Chicago Line, and travels north-south at this point. The tracks are owned by Amtrak here and run directly north into the station; NS ownership begins about a half mile south of the wye. The Air Line viaduct crosses over the wye's north leg and the Canal Street overpass, with the defunct B&OCT viaduct to its right.

Traffic though here and Union Avenue is heavy on weekdays, with commuter trains dominating the traffic. The Air Line sees around ten trains a day, and roughly eight to ten freight transfers use the wye's south leg.


BNSF: 161.100, 161.160
UP: 161.040, 160.890


The Halsted station platform is more problematic now than in the past. While it is publicly accessible, it stands on BNSF property, so you may get a visit from special agents. Of course, the Canal Street overpass poses no trespass problems. However, in early 2008 a fence was installed that hampers photography. The neighborhood around 16th Street is reasonably safe in daytime.

For more on BNSF's (ex-BN, ex-CB&Q) main line, see LaVergne and LaGrange and Congress Park. See also Eola on the West and southwest suburbs (various) page. For more on the St. Charles Air Line, see 16th Street Crossing on the South Side (various) page.


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