Skokie Swift: The “True Gen”

A Yellow Line train turns back south of Howard, with Red Line trains in the background.

A Yellow Line train turns back south of Howard, with Red Line trains in the background.

The “True Gen,” in military parlance, means genuine, accurate, useful information, the kind you can stake your life on in wartime.  (It’s also the title of my favorite book about Ernest Hemingway.)

Today, we’ll apply that phrase to the Chicago Transit Authority‘s Yellow Line, aka the Skokie Swift.  More than 50 years after service begin in April 1964, there seems to be a bit of confusion about its origins.  Even the Wikipedia page had some misinformation on it, which we corrected.  (That is both the blessing and the curse of the Wikipedia; but if anyone can come up with a better system, I’d like to know what it is.)

We like our history fresh from the source.  So, here are a couple of newspaper articles with the “true gen” on how the Swift came to be.  They set straight a couple of “factoids” that have made the rounds– that CTA supposedly already owned the right-of-way to Skokie Shops (it didn’t) and that the Swift was dependent on receiving federal aid (it wasn’t).

Not that you can take all newspaper reports as gospel, of course.  You always have to consider the source.  But I think that as far as these articles, go, however, we’re on pretty safe ground.  As one of the original riders that first week, I can assure you that the high-speed “spam cans” did make much of the five mile journey at 60 mph, a thrilling ride indeed.

I’ve supplemented this post with some pictures I took last April 26, when the CTA celebrated a half-century of the Swift, none of which have been published before.  I’ve written about the Skokie Swift before on the CERA Members Blog, and you can find some of those posts here and here.  If you like what you see here, you might want to check those out too.

And that’s the True Gen.

-David Sadowski

Chicago Tribune, August 2, 1963, page 12:

HIGH-SPEED CTA SKOKIE TRANSIT ROUTE PLANNED

Use North Shore Strip to Dempster St.

By Thomas Buck

The Chicago transit authority expects to establish a new high speed, nonstop rapid transit service this fall over a five mile stretch of the abandoned North Shore railroad right of way between the Howard street terminal and Dempster street, Skokie.

Plans for the new rapid transit service were announced by George DeMent, chairman of the CTA, and Walter J. McCarter, the transit authority’s general manager.

“We are still negotiating for the purchase of this five mile section of the North Shore right-of-way, and we are hopeful that these negotiations can be completed in time to create this new service this fall,” said DeMent.

May Seek U.S. Grant

In addition to the North Shore railroad, DeMent said, the negotiations also are being carried on with Commonwealth Edison company, which for many years has owned part of the right of way for power line use.

DeMent also indicated the CTA may seek a grant from the federal government for paying two-thirds of the cost of establishing the new route as a “demonstration project.”

McCarter described the proposed new service to Dempster street, Skokie, as an “excellent opportunity to extend rapid transit into suburban areas where large parking facilities also would be provided for ‘park-and-ride’ patrons of the CTA.”

“We would use high speed cars as single car shuttle trains which could operate for much of the nonstop five mile trip at 60 miles an hour,” said McCarter.  “Our plans call for providing at least 600 parking spaces at the Dempster street station.”

The high speed, one-car trains, McCarter estimated, would cover the five mile trip in eight to 10 minutes, compared with 24 to 25 minutes required for the CTA’s present buses between Dempster street and the Howard terminal.  He also explained that the rapid transit service would be operated only in periods of heavy demand and that the buses would continue operating “around the clock.”

Skokie Votes $17,000

DeMent pointed out that Myron Greisdorf, president of Skokie, and other Skokie village board members have “shown their definite interest by voting $17,000 to help establish the new service.”  No estimate was given on the cost of providing the new rapid transit shuttle service…

Chicago Tribune, October 4, 1963, page 4:

CTA APPROVES PURCHASING OF SKOKIE ROUTE

Total Cost Would Be Two Million

By Thomas Buck

The acquisitions of a five mile stretch of the North Shore railroad right-of-way for a new rapid transit train service between the Howard street terminal and Dempster street, Skokie was authorized yesterday by the board of the Chicago transit authority.

The board acted on a recommendation by Walter J. McCarter, CTA general manager, who reported that a price of 2 million dollars had been negotiated with the North Shore railroad.

Would Pay 1.7 Million

Under a purchase agreement, McCarter said, the CTA would pay 1.7 million dollars of the cost.  The remaining $300,000, he said, is to be paid by Commonwealth Edison company in return for converting its easements into perpetual rights for power transmission lines along the property.

In addition, Commonwealth Edison is to pay the CTA a monthly rental of $700 on the easements for an initial period of two years.  The rental payments, McCarter said, would be used to help cover any operating losses that migth be incurred during a two-year experimental period.

Village Must Agree

“We expect to have this new service in operation within two to three months,” said George DeMent, CTA chairman.  “The plan also is contingent upon a pending agreement with the village of Skokie whereby it would provide parking spaces for at least 400 cars at the Dempster street station.”

DeMent said the CTA also expects to file a request for federal government financial assistance to help pay any operating deficit for the first two years as a “demonstration project.”  Under this plan, the federal government would pay two-thirds of operating losses and the CTA one-third.

Meanwhile, McCarter said the CTA will continue to operate its Skokie bus route which makes local stops in the same general area.

DeMent indicated, however, that the CTA would undertake the project on its own in the event the operation is not accepted by the federal government as an experiment.

McCarter explained that single-car trains, without any intermediate stops, would make the five mile trip in 6 1/2 to 7 minutes.  He said the single cars would be operated at 10 minute intervals from early morning until late evening, but that no late night service would be provided.

The CTA already must acquire half of the five-mile stretch, McCarter explained, because of the necessity to maintain tracks to its shops at 3701 W. Oakton st., Skokie.

DeMent also said that the CTA is studying the costs of using the North Shore right-of-way still further north, possibly to Glenview or Northfield.  However, DeMent said that for any further extensions, the suburbs involved would be asked to pay for right-of-way acquisition and necessary equipment, as well as to guarantee the CTA against operating losses.

Joe Stupar writes:

That is interesting but not surprising about Edison paying a portion. At the time of abandonment, Edison had a non-exclusive lease with the North Shore for the tower line there, dated March 8, 1957. Interestingly enough, that lease was not due to expire until December 31, 2008.

Early abandonment forecasts from the North Shore from 1961 were uncertain whether the CTA would purchase any line at all. They mention construction of a new shop facility at Forest Park. However, by 1963 it appears certain they would purchase the line. Three proposals were prepared, purchase from Howard -> East Prairie Rd (2.75 Miles), Howard -> Dempster St (5 Miles), and Howard -> Glenview Rd (7 Miles). The most expensive section of track was from Howard -> East Prairie Rd, with a book value of $3,896,784, and a suggested selling price of $1,500,000. The scrap value of the North Shore was related to book value, replacement cost, and value of physical infrastructure as scrap. As such, with the many bridges (including channel bridge), this was one of the most expensive sections of track. From East Prairie to Dempster had a book value of $776,334 and a suggested asking price of $500,000; from Dempster to Glenview Rd $548,032, and a suggested asking price of $350,000.

I thought I remembered reading somewhere that part of the reason to operate to Dempster St instead of Glenview Rd was due to car miles, and availability of equipment to operate the service. A 1963 estimate lists annual car miles of 127,500 to Dempster St, and 250,000 to Glenayre.

Another interesting fact is an April 1963 fare comparison. CTA was proposing a 55 cent fare Loop to Dempster, or a 70 cent fare Loop to Glenview. This 55/70 compares to 62/75 on the Milw, 69/81 on the CNW, and 78/86 actual North Shore. The CTA did not propose to sell monthly tickets, but it also lists equivalent monthly fares of 45/51 on Milw, 40/47 on CNW, and 52/56 on North Shore.

There is one other advantage to constructing the line to Dempster St vs East Prairie Rd or Glenview Rd as well. Available land for a parking lot. According to Chicago Tribune articles of the time, the village of Skokie paid to construct a large parking lot at Skokie. Even in 1963, there were a lot of houses near the Glenview station and I don’t know if there would have been room for a parking lot. Same with East Prairie Rd.

Interestingly enough, at one point the North Shore seriously considered selling the right of way from Oakton to Lake Bluff to the CNW. They even went so far as to suggest that the CNW may want to purchase the stations and resume passenger service. I thought this seemed kind of far fetched, but I recently stumbled across a Chicago Tribune article from December 63 / January 64 about a proposed CNW restart of service to Skokie, and possibly Glenview / Northbrook.

There is one other factor that hasn’t been mentioned for going to Dempster St. This is a minor detail, but by going to there, they pick up another substation on the line. If they had only purchased up to East Prairie, the whole line would be fed by the Howard end. I’m not sure if the Skokie substation figures into the value of that portion or not.

I also read another letter written to the editor in December of 63. It was a suggestion that the CTA re-open the stations on the line, since otherwise the trains would just be passing all of the potential riders in the dense areas.

The "fantrip" train at the Dempster terminal.

The “fantrip” train at the Dempster terminal.

The 4000s at Dempster.

The 4000s at Dempster.

The special train at Asbury in Evanston.

The special train at Asbury in Evanston.

An eastbound train of 5000s at the Oakton curve.

An eastbound train of 5000s at the Oakton curve.

The 4000s at East Prairie Road.

The 4000s at East Prairie Road.

Southbound at Oakton.

Southbound at Oakton.

Northbound at Oakton.

Northbound at Oakton.

The 4000s pair southbound at Oakton.

The 4000s pair southbound at Oakton.

Southbound at Main.

Southbound at Main.

Northbound at Main.

Northbound at Main.

Westbound at Ridge in Evanston.

Westbound at Ridge in Evanston.

Eastbound at Ridge in Evanston.

Eastbound at Ridge in Evanston.

Eastbound at Ridge in Evanston.

Eastbound at Ridge in Evanston.

Westbound at Ridge in Evanston.

Westbound at Ridge in Evanston.

7 thoughts on “Skokie Swift: The “True Gen”

  1. Apparently Skokie got really gung-ho about transit after the Swift’s phenomenal initial success. In 1965-66 the village made rather grandiose plans to run a comprehensive local bus system, replacing Evanston Bus Co and United Motor Coach services in the area. 16 GM buses were ordered (and built) and contracts were negotiated with EBC and UMC to operate the half-dozen new routes starting in the spring of 1966. The CTA Library had a report in its files on this project, with the final entry stating the schedules have been prepared, the contracts are ready to be signed and service is ready to start. But at the last minute, everything simply collapsed, apparently when Skokie realized how much this was all going to cost. Eight of the buses ended up with Evanston Bus, the others went to Jackson MI (4) and Avenue B& East Broadway in New York City (4), and the proposal was never brought up in public again.

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    • But I did… in one of the earlier posts I wrote for the CERA Members Blog:

      http://cerablog.com/2014/04/20/the-swift-at-half-century/

      There, you will find several color photos of rapid transit on the CRT/CTA Niles Center branch, photos of North Shore Line trains running between Howard and Dempster, photos of the state of the right-of-way after abandonment, early photos of the Swift in operation, the first timetable, an early service bulletin, etc. etc. Since I had already covered these aspects in another blog post, I wasn’t intending to go over them again. There are links to two other posts about the Swift/Yellow Line included in my most recent article.

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    • I’m sure we will be posting more pictures of wooden “L” cars soon, thanks. Can’t say whether they will be the Niles Center branch, however. Those pictures are scarce and we were lucky to find those color ones we posted.

      Watch this space.

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  2. Scarcest of all are pictures of the original Lake Street fleet, later assigned number in the 3000’s. But I am very happy to see pictures of any CTA/CRT/CER wooden cars! Thank you for all your posts!

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