We provide some tips here to help you explore Chicagoland railroading safely and legally. This advice is targeted particularly for those who are unfamiliar with the Chicago area, or who are new to railfanning in general.
First, and most important:
Regardless of anything written on this site, you and you alone are responsible for being safe and legal while you are investigating the fascinating railroad landscape in and around Chicago.
We attempt to point out safe and legal vantage points, but the reader should understand that locations change over time.
Safety around the railroad
- Railroad tracks are private property. Do not cross the tracks anywhere other than a public sidewalk or road.
- Stand at least 20 feet away from the tracks, and be attentive to passing rail traffic. Be wary of hazards such as a shifted load. When near the tracks, avoid texting, using headphones, or other distractions that prevent you from seeing or hearing an approaching train. Keep your eyes and ears open!
- Railroad employees are taught to expect the movement of trains, engines, cars, or other movable equipment at any time, on any track, and in either direction. This is good advice for railfans as well.
Read some track safety basics from Operation Lifesaver, a non-profit organization committed to preventing collisions, injuries and fatalities.
In general, it is legal to observe and photograph trains from public locations such as the platforms of Metra's passenger stations. Needless to say, yards, interlocking towers, and other facilities not intended for the public are private property, and are thus off limits.
Railroads employ police officers (often referred to as "special agents") to protect their property from vandalism, theft, and other crimes. Special agents supplement state, county, and municipal police officers who patrol areas within their jurisdiction.
In this era of heightened security, railfans attract attention from law enforcement simply because our activity is unusual, even in well-known urban railfan "hot spots."
Remember that when a police officer makes first contact with you, he or she knows nothing about you, or about why you are near the railroad. In many cases, the police officer or special agent may simply want to ensure that you're not planning a crime. They may also want to be sure that you are OK, that you aren't having car trouble, or that you haven't been a victim of a crime.
Provided that you are not trespassing or doing anything else illegal, most encounters with law enforcement will be brief and benign.
If your encounter with a police officer becomes unpleasant, do your best to defuse the situation. You're not going to gain points by being argumentative. Know your rights, but be courteous and respectful. If you are told that you are on private property, offer to leave, or to relocate to public property.
Railroad police are not private security guards. To the contrary, railroad special agents are certified state law enforcement officers with investigative and arrest powers both on and off railroad property. Since they are protecting interstate commerce, railroad police have federal police powers as well.
Near some industrial locations like steel mills and other factories, private security guards may take an interest in your railfanning. Again, respect private property, and be courteous and respectful.
Neighborhoods and crime
Chicago is a vast city: Some 2.7 million people live within the nearly 235 square miles that fall within city limits. Taking the six-county metropolitan area as a whole, the area is home to 9.6 million people.
Because of its industry and the plentiful well-paying jobs that were once available, Chicago has served from its very beginning as a magnet for immigrants from abroad, and migrants from the rural U.S. Chicago is a diverse city of many ethnic neighborhoods, some with better socioeconomic conditions than others.
The railroads had a significant role in the development of Chicago, with the city quickly becoming a transportation hub. Industry followed the railroads, providing many jobs in the vicinity of railroad lines. However, the railroads and industries together produced pollution and noise. In many cases, this made the areas nearest to the railroad attractive only to those who couldn't afford better surroundings.
While Chicago has actually lost relatively little of its rail mileage as the result of mergers and abandonments, many of the railroad tracks, yards, and industries became moribund as the result of traffic shifting away from rail toward other modes of transport. With the decline of the railroads and dependent industries came the loss of many good jobs. Areas that were once healthy working-class neighborhoods became impoverished due to the loss of jobs and other factors. Unfortunately, crime often follows poverty.
It would be unfair to paint Chicago's railroad scene with a broad brush and say that the areas around railroad tracks are uniformly risky. Let's be honest: Every large American city runs the gamut from neighborhoods with well-kept homes and lawns to the desolation of neighborhoods that have seen better days.
With that having been said, we'll avoid making broad observations about personal safety at particular locations. To a great degree, your own worldview and life experiences will dictate what you consider "safe" or "unsafe." We will simply suggest that you not explore alone unless you are comfortable with a particular site.
In the times we live in, crime can occur in wealthy communities as well as in the grittier neighborhoods of the city.
Some locations covered on this site may not offer safe or legal vantage points for an extended stay, but might merit a quick, legal "drive by" to observe the location, and to contemplate what might have been there in the past.
In some places, your presence will be observed by the residents of the area. Railfans are often easy to identify as outsiders. This is as true in rural areas as it is in an urban setting: People may be as wary of you as an unknown in their neighborhood as you are of them. You may encounter homeless, panhandlers, and others near the railroad. Again, we recommend that you don't explore alone unless you're confident that you can do so safely.
Above all, keep your eyes and ears open. If you feel uncomfortable with your surroundings, consider relocating.