Decades before the Obama Administration began talking about speeding up Amtrak, the North Shore was a railroad without speed limits – just occasional restrictions.Let the record show that the railroad coaxed 111 mph out of an Electroliner on a test run. The smart guys said no electric railroad using trolley poles and simple catenary could do that. It's all in good maintenance.
“There was something in the air about the North Shore,” said Tom Jervan, who rode its streetcars in Waukegan as a child and later worked for the railroad. “There was a period in the existence of that railroad where it was the super-interurban in the country. It was the fastest. It had the facilities like nobody else had. It did everything in superlatives.”
Even in its final months, the North Shore operated expresses that hit 80 miles an hour between stations on the main line, the Skokie Valley Route, to Waukegan and on a branch to Libertyville and Mundelein, in addition to the limiteds that ran hourly from 6 a.m. until midnight to and from Milwaukee. The two top-of-the-line Electroliners ran every three hours, back and forth between Chicago and Milwaukee. Much of the line was served by four trains an hour, meticulously cleaned and cared for.With the abandonment order subject to judicial review, rolling stock due for scheduled maintenance was disassembled on Friday awaiting part replacement that never came on Monday.
“There was an espirit d’corps,” Jervan said at a reunion of North Shore employees, the most recent of which took place in November. “We kept the darned thing running. Our on-time performance was usually around 95 or 96 percent. In your dreams, Amtrak. In your dreams, Metra.”
At its peak, the North Shore reported 99.26 percent on-time performance, and it did so with equipment that, except for the two 1941-vintage Electroliners, pre-dated the Great Depression.
“Our oldest rolling stock was built in 1915,” Jervan said. “They were all still running, racking up in many cases millions of miles each. The Highwood shop, if you were to look at that shop and compare it with a modern (railroad repair) shop, you’d say, ‘How did anybody get any work done in this prehistoric cave?’”
The North Shore used to boast in its advertisements that you could set your watch by its trains. Jervan said snow never stopped the North Shore for long. Neither did bitter cold. And he said its trains moved up and down the line with dispatch. Its trains never sat in stations.In defense of Metra and Amtrak, those sailors on liberty weren't schlepping their sea-bags with them, intercity travellers weren't burdened with those roller bags, and commuters didn't have laptops and smart 'phones. All the same, the North Shore assigned enough collectors (assistant conductors) to be able to load and unload through all the doors. On the other hand, an Electroliner had seats for 150 passengers or so, about the same carrying capacity as one Metra gallery coach.
“The dwell time (time stopped) at our stations was negligible,” he said. “The dwell time that Metra has at its stations is a total joke. In this time and age, in the 21st Century, they need to look back at an interurban line that ran with cars built in 1915 on how to run a railroad.”
The [Skokie Swift] is the only operating remnant of the North Shore, but many of its historic interurban cars still can be found today in museums, including the Illinois Railway Museum, in Union, which has more than a half-dozen operating North Shore cars and one of the Electroliners. The Fox River Trolley Museum, in South Elgin, has two operable North Shore cars and Wisconsin’s East Troy Electric Railway Museum is restoring a North Shore “Limited” car. Other North Shore cars reside in museums as far away as Iowa, Connecticut and Maine.We'll look at some of those preservation efforts in the near future.