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It's Called The 'L,' So Why Isn't It Elevated At Some Points?

By Patty Wetli | September 27, 2016 8:54am
 A mile of the Brown Line, between Rockwell and Kimball, runs at grade level. Why?
Why Isn't The L Elevated?
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ALBANY PARK — It's all there in the name. The "L." Short for "elevated."

So how is it that twice in the last four months, "L" trains have collided with cars at street-level crossings? The latest happened Monday afternoon when a car was hit near the Francisco station.

That's because there are parts of Chicago's transit system where the city's "railroad in the sky" meets the road, neither soaring overhead nor diving underground but running at street level, requiring crossing gates.

On a milelong stretch of the Brown Line, from Rockwell to Kimball, the famously raised "L" tracks come down to earth.


Short answer: Because they can.

Patty talks about some of the history of the "L."

As a quick history lesson, the CTA didn't come into being as a municipal entity until the 1940s. Before then, the city's rail and streetcar systems were privately built, owned and operated.

Northwestern Elevated Railroad Company started construction on the Ravenswood branch of what's now the Brown Line — Southport to Kimball — in 1906.

The company was required to secure a "franchise" from the city for the Southport-to-Western leg, and that franchise mandated elevated tracks. But the proposed west-of-Western portion ran through private property owned by the Northwest Land Association, no franchise needed.

At the time, the area was sparsely populated by farmers and small homesteaders. Eager to lure more people to their development, the land association granted the rail company a free right-of-way to extend the Ravenswood branch at grade level — far less expensive to build than raised trestles.  

For good measure, the land association picked up the construction tab for the Kedzie station and part of the Kimball terminal and agreed to cover any operating losses for the first three years of service, according to a history of the "L."

The investment paid off, with Albany Park building up along the rail line after the Western-to-Kimball track was put into service at the end of 1907.

Initially the Rockwell, Francisco, Kedzie and Kimball stations were served by a shuttle that met Loop-bound trains at Western. In 1909, the shuttle was eliminated, and trains ran all the way through from Kimball to the Loop and back.

The Brown Line Francisco station is the oldest gem in Ravenswood Manor, predating the neighborhood's development. Built in 1907, the station was slated for demolition in 2005 as part of the Brown Line renovation, but neighbors rallied to save it.

There are several other grade-level crossings along the CTA system, including on the far north end of the Purple Line in Wilmette.

(By the way, if you're wondering why the third rail doesn't kill you at the grade-level crossings, it's because that electrified rail is interrupted for long stretches around the crossings.)

There are parts of Chicago's "L'"system where the city's "railroad in the sky" meets the road. [All photos DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]

The Francisco station appears as it did when it was first built in 1907, thanks to the preservation efforts of Ravenswood Manor residents.

The Brown Line tracks gradually descend from Western to Rockwell, where the "L" comes down to earth.

In May, a woman drove around lowered gates at Rockwell and was hit by a Brown Line. She survived. (DNAinfo/Patty Wetli)

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