The Metra BNSF service operates on the former Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (CB&Q) line west between Chicago Union Station and Aurora. Formally known as the BNSF Chicago Subdivision, this line is sometimes referred to my railfans as "the racetrack" because of the heavy mix of freight traffic interlaced with commuter trains and operating at speed.
BNSF operates Metra trains under a purchase-of-service agreement. BNSF owns, maintains and dispatches the railroad, and also owns or leases some of the commuter equipment. Train crews and agents at manned stations along the line are BNSF employees.
Most Metra trains run the entire distance between Chicago and Aurora, though there are some rush hour trips that turn back at intermediate points. Of all of Chicago's Metra lines, service levels on the BNSF line have made the most complete recovery from COVID-19 service levels. As of August 2022, the schedule is close to pre-pandemic levels.
These three lines were former Chicago & North Western, and passed into Union Pacific's hands when that railroad acquired C&NW in 1995. All operate from the Ogilvie Transportation Center, two blocks north of Union Station at Madison and Canal streets. The downtown station stands where the North Western's 1911 terminal stood until its demolition in 1984.
The three lines are:
- Metra's Union Pacific West service operates on UP's Geneva Subdivision between Chicago and Elburn, 44 miles west of Chicago. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, some rush hour trips turned back at Elmhurst, but these have not returned to the timetable as of August 2022.
- Metra's Union Pacific Northwest service operates on UP's Harvard Subdivision to its namesake community, located 62.8 miles from Chicago. A limited number of rush hour trains instead travel to and from the McHenry Subdivision at Crystal Lake Jct. and travel 7.6 miles to and from their terminus at McHenry.
- Metra's Union Pacific North service operates on UP's Kenosha Subdivision, which extends 51.6 miles north of Chicago across the state line to Kenosha, Wisconsin. In practice, most service terminates at Waukegan (35.9 miles north of Chicago). In 2022, Metra issued a pilot schedule calling for off-peak trains on 30 minute frequency to Winnetka. Some rush hour trains turn back at Highland Park.
Metra commuter service is provided under a purchase-of-service agreement. UP owns, maintains, and dispatches the physical plant. Train crews are UP employees.
Metra owns and maintains the physical plant on the Milwaukee District North (C&M and Fox Lake Subdivisions) and Milwaukee District West (Elgin Subdivision). Canadian Pacific dispatches the territory. Locomotives and rolling stock belongs to Metra, and train crews are Metra employees.
North Central Line
Canadian National owns, maintains and dispatches the route used by the Metra North Central service between Antioch and Tower B-12 in Franklin Park, which is referred to by the railroad as the Waukesha Subdivision. Train equipment belongs to Metra, and train crews are employed by Metra. North Central trains use the Metra-owned Milwaukee District West line between Franklin Park and Union Station.
Metra Heritage Corridor trains operate on CN from 21st Street (about a mile south of Union Station) via the former Gulf, Mobile & Ohio route to the north end of Joliet. From there to the Joliet station, the track belongs to UP. Metra owns the equipment and employs the train crews. CN dispatches the route.
Metra Southwest service trains use the former Chicago & Western Indiana and former Wabash line to the southwest. The line was leased to Metra in 1993 by Norfolk Southern, and is referred to as the Southwest Subdivision. NS retains trackage rights and continues to dispatch the route.
Metra owns the equipment and employs the train crews. Most commuter trains terminate at the suburb of Orland Park, but a few continue on to Manhattan, Illinois.
Once upon a time, this line was part of the Wabash line to Decatur and St. Louis. From a point near the end of Metra service at Manhattan, the track is abandoned as far south as the tiny town of Cullom in central Illinois, where the Bloomer Line (BLOL) uses the line to Gibson City. South of Gibson City, NS owns the remainder of this line up to the junction with its east/west Lafayette District (also ex-Wabash) at Bement, IL.
The Metra Electric District is a former Illinois Central commuter route that runs south from its downtown terminus at Millennium Station at Randolph Street station and Michigan Ave. in the east Loop. For most of its distance, the Metra Electric line runs alongside CN's ex-IC Chicago Sub. It is the only Metra territory using electric power. The main line passes through Hyde Park, Kensington, Homewood and Matteson, terminating at the far south suburb of University Park.
Two branches diverge from the main, one at 67th Street that extends to 91st St. in South Chicago, and the other just south of Kensington, which terminates at Blue Island.
The Chicago, South Shore & South Bend interurban exercises trackage rights on Metra tracks from Kensington (115th Street) to downtown. The South Shore works with Metra, but is not part of the agency. The South Shore is owned and operated by the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (NICTD), and serves the Hegewisch neighborhood of Chicago, along with Hammond, East Chicago, Gary, Michigan City, and South Bend, Indiana.
Rock Island District
The Metra Rock Island District, as its name implies, is the former Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific main line between LaSalle Street station in the south Loop and Joliet station. At 16th Street, it crosses both CN's Chicago Sub and the St.Charles Air Line. Further south, it passes through Gresham and Blue Island's Vermont Street station, and runs above the Blue Island crossing on an overpass. Iowa Interstate (IAIS) and CSX freight trains use the Rock Island main line (officially the Joliet Subdivision) on trackage rights.
At Gresham (near 89th St.), an all-passenger line diverges from the main line. Officially, this line is known as the Beverly Subdivision, though it was known as the "Suburban Branch" in the past. Most Rock Island District trains use this branch to serve the residential neighborhoods along the branch. The two lines reunite at Blue Island.
Beyond Joliet, the former Rock Island line is operated by CSX to Bureau, Illinois, and by IAIS to Peoria, the Quad Cities, Iowa City, and Council Bluffs.