At 5:27 a.m. on Monday, August 19, 1996, a regular service Metra train rolled south out of Antioch for the first time, inaugurating the first new commuter train line in the Chicago area in about 70 years: the North Central Service was born.
The 53-mile, $131.4 million new line got off to a good start – about 1,000 passengers rode on the first day, boarding one of the 10 trains on the initial timetable. Twenty years later, the line has matured into a vital transportation option for about 6,500 passengers and an economic catalyst for more than a dozen communities in northern Cook and Lake counties.Like most tracks in Chicago, the tracks now used by the North Central Service have gone through many owners. They were first built by the original Wisconsin Central Railroad in the late 19th century, and the Soo Line took control in 1909. Soo operated freight and intercity passenger trains, but by 1965 all passenger service on the route had ceased. (There is no record of any real commuter service along the route.) In 1987, Soo, which was then a subsidiary of Canadian Pacific, sold the line to a new entity that revived the Wisconsin Central name. The new Wisconsin Central was then bought by Canadian National, the current owner, in 2001.
Metra began eyeing the freight line for a commuter route shortly after it was formed in 1984. The idea made its way into Metra and regional planning documents by the late 1980s and by the early 1990s Metra had forged a partnership with communities along the route, which agreed to fund stations and parking lots. That groundswell of support was key to getting about $75 million in federal funding to develop the line.
Much work had to be done to make the single-track line compatible for commuter trains. Rails and signals were upgraded to allow for 60-mph commuter trains. Sidings were added or elongated so freight trains could move out of the way of commuter trains and vice versa. Gates were upgraded at 69 crossings and rebuilt at 23 crossings. New stations and parking lots were built by the communities along the route.
Ridership was high enough by 1997 – more than 3,600 passenger trips a day – that Metra moved ahead with plans to add a second track and make other improvements, allowing it to operate more trains. That work cost $218 million and took until January 2006, when four new stations opened and 20 trains started to run daily. Two more trains were added that September.