Parts of this line originated with the Wabash Railway, which built a link to Chicago in 1880. That section, south of 74th, eventually ended up belonging to Norfolk Southern. Another part, from 21st to 74th, belonged to the Chicago & Western Indiana Railroad (which was owned by Wabash and other railroads) and parts are now owned by Metra or NS. Metra controls none of the six intersections with freight railroads on this line. Wabash and the NS operated commuter trains on the route to Orland Park. Metra assumed operations in 1993, renaming it the SouthWest Service. Commuter service was extended to Manhattan in 2006. Metra leases the route from NS, and trains are dispatched from Dearborn, Mich. Timetables are “Banner Blue” to commemorate the Wabash Railroad’s Banner Blue trains.

In 2006, the town of Manhattan, Ill., had long been off railroading’s beaten path. The farm village still boasted just two traffic lights and a quiet, weatherworn section of ex-Wabash Railroad mainline that saw only sporadic use. Passenger service had ended long before, and Manhattan’s tiny depot was rapidly succumbing to the elements. But on Jan. 30, 2006, a stainless steel streamliner led by modern diesels once again prowled the Wabash main, bringing passengers to Manhattan on scheduled commuter service for the first time since 1971.

This was not a return of the Wabash back from railroading’s graveyard. Instead, Metra had started a new commuter service on 12 miles of line that soon became known as the “Wabash Extension.”

The tracks over which Metra operates the SouthWest Service (SWS) date to the mid-to-late 19th century and were built as the Wabash mainline running north from Strawn, Ill., to a connection with the Chicago & Western Indiana near downtown. From there, the road’s passenger trains ran into Dearborn Street Station. The track, laid in 1880, was a relatively late addition to the Wabash system, an attempt to capture freight and passenger business headed to the Windy City.

The Wabash’s origins date to 1834 as the Northern Cross Railroad. In 1858, the Toledo and Illinois was chartered, and from there, what eventually emerged as the Wabash went through the mergers, bankruptcies and changes of ownership that characterize late 19th century railroading. Proxy control (via stock ownership) by the Pennsylvania Railroad came in 1927, and in 1941 the Pennsy solidified its grip, though the Wabash remained more or less independent. Finally, in 1964, the Wabash merged with the Norfolk & Western, and eventually, following the 1982 merger of N&W and Southern, the Norfolk Southern (NS).

Wabash existed as a “paper railroad” as late as 1991, when NS finally merged it completely out of existence. The mainline out of Chicago ran south to Bement, Ill., where it joined Wabash’s east-west mainline across south-central Illinois. A 1990 trackage rights agreement with nearby Illinois Central (since 1999, Canadian National) allowed NS to operate over one of the IC’s secondary lines between Gibson City and Gilman, then on the IC mainline to Chicago. This allowed NS to abandon the Wabash main between Gibson City and Manhattan. NS maintained ownership of the 41-mile portion of the line that ran from Chicago south to Manhattan. The primary reason for the railroad’s continued existence was Metra’s operation over the northern part of the line.

At one time, the line had been home to famous Wabash passenger trains like the “Banner Blue,” “Blue Bird,” and “Midnight Limited.” Commuter service appears to have begun as early as 1893, operating as far south as Orland Park. By the 1930s, service on the line declined but the Wabash did continue to operate a small commuter service to Chicago: the “Chicago Express” ran north in the morning and the “Decatur Express” rolled south in the evening. Following the N&W merger in 1964, this service was cut back to serve just the north end of the line, terminating in Orland Park.

In 1976, the RTA began to assume control of the various privately owned commuter services. At the same time, the line’s Chicago terminus was moved from Dearborn Station to Union Station via a new connection at 21st St. RTA subsidies to N&W began in 1978. Metra, which assumed control of commuter operations from the RTA in 1984, took over full operation of the service in 1993. The line became known as the SouthWest Service. NS still owns the track but leases it to Metra.

By the mid-1990s, Metra had extended service from the line’s original commuter terminus at 143rd St. to 179th St. To add more capacity, Metra decided to extend service south approximately 12 miles to Manhattan. At the same time, track and stations north of Manhattan would be upgraded to handle almost double the traffic from 16 to 30 trains daily. In October 2000, the extension project obtained final funding approval. Total program costs worked out to slightly more than $198 million.

Metra planned to nearly double service on the line, requiring a significant upgrade of signaling systems as well as some additional track and sidings. The portion south of Orland Park also needed upgrades to accommodate Metra’s 79 mph operating speeds .

Metra began the expanded service in 2006, marking the first passenger trains to Manhattan in more than 30 years. Starting in March 2009, service on the line was extended to Saturdays as well.

This is a highly condensed version of “Follow the Flag: Chicago’s Metra ‘Wabash Extension,’” by Paul Burgess, from the Spring 2013 edition of First & Fastest, published by the Shore Line Interurban Historical Society.