JOLIET – Most commuters waiting for the 9:21 on Friday had no idea they were about to board the last train out of Union Station.
And those who were aware that the 102-year-old station’s boarding platforms were about to shut down weren’t too happy.
“I’m not a happy camper,” said Kelly Peters, of Joliet. “It’s not very convenient at all.”
Peters said she commutes to Chicago on the Rock Island District a couple of times each week for medical reasons. Starting next week, she’ll have to use the new, mostly open air platform south of Jefferson Street between Michigan Street and Eastern Avenue.
In the past, Peters said she was dropped off at Union Station, took the elevator to track level and boarded the train. She doubted boarding would be as easy at the new platform.
“The trains are unforgiving. They can leave pretty quickly,” Peters said. “They announce they’re leaving and then they leave.”
Last train, first ride
For Sophia Flowers, 3, the last outbound was her first chance to ride on a train.
“She’s so excited. She just loves Choo Choo Thomas,” mom Jola Flowers said, referring to Thomas the Tank Engine. Flowers said the pair planned to go to Chicago, where they would “walk around and enjoy the beautiful day.”
Union Station’s Rock Island and Heritage Corridor platforms officially shut down at 10 a.m. Friday.
Two commuters who missed the 9:21 a.m. train continued to wait at the old platform, not realizing all commuter train traffic on both lines now would be directed to the new platforms.
The last Heritage Corridor train out was the 7:05 a.m. Afternoon Heritage trains returning to Joliet will now drop off commuters at a temporary platform across the street from Silver Cross Field.
The two platforms are part of the city's $41.25 million Joliet transportation center project, which will include a new train station at the southwest corner of Mayor Art Schultz Drive and Jefferson Street, tied into a new bus station to be built on St. Louis Street. The new train station is expected to open in summer 2016.
Commuter Jeff Skrolyck, of Joliet, said he’d heard about the plan, but not many specific details.
“I knew it was coming, but I didn’t know it was today,” Skrolyck said.
Joel Alonzo, who was traveling to Chicago for a job interview, also was unaware of the change.
“I just heard about it,” Alonzo said. “If I get the job I’ll be taking the train all the time.”
The train arrived about 10 minutes late because of track work. It left abruptly, with no fanfare, except from a few train aficionados who showed up to take pictures of its departure.
Train geek Kevin Griffin arrived just in time to snap a few photos. Griffin said he was on his way back from Michigan and stopped by to record the event.
“I had heard they were working on it, but I didn’t know that they were [shutting down the platforms] today,” Griffin said.
Opened in 1912
Union Station has been in continuous operation as a passenger station since October 1912, according to Bill Molony, president of the Blackhawk Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society.
Prior to that, Joliet had as many as five stations, all at street level, Molony said. The set-up caused a lot of traffic problems, leading the city to pass an ordinance that train lines would have to be elevated throughout the city.
Three railroads – the Chicago & Rock Island, the Atchison, Topeka & Sante Fe, and the Chicago & Alton – were among the first to elevate their tracks. The three companies jointly built Union Station to serve their lines.
Before the road system and air travel developed, the railroads served as the primary link for many towns, delivering passengers, freight and mail.
“For more than 100 years the train station was the front door of the community,” Molony said. “Everything came by rail – Sears Roebuck deliveries, the new schoolteacher, visitors, the mail – all came by train. Either you took the train, or you didn’t go.”
At its height, Union Station served about 120 trains a day. The upstairs ballroom served as a waiting area.
“You could get on a train and pretty much go anywhere in the country,” Molony said.
A postcard Molony has showing the station is a relic from those early days. In the days before widespread telephone use, mail was the only way a commuter could tell family he had arrived safely at a destination. Stations sold postcards and stamps for a penny each, leading to the phrase “put your two cents in,” Molony said.
Right place for its time
Rail’s heyday continued until the late 1950s, when the burgeoning interstate system provided families with an alternative to train travel. Train use declined even more in 1968, when the U.S. Postal Service stopped using trains for mail service.
But even as late as 1956, Union Station still offered train service around the clock to places such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Galveston, Kansas City, Omaha and St. Louis.
Driven mostly by streamlined stainless steel diesel locomotives, the trains were christened with names such as the Midnight Special, El Capitan, the Kansas City Chief, the Rocky Mountain Rocket and the Super Chief.
Passenger trains now make up only a small part of rail service. Freight, on the other hand, is booming, thanks to container shipping and collection points like BNSF Logistics Park Chicago in Elwood and the Union Pacific Joliet Intermodal Terminal in Joliet.
Freeing up the freight lines that move through Joliet from commuter traffic was one of the big reasons behind the new train station and commuter platforms.
“Union Station was in the exact right place 100 years ago,” Molony said. “It isn’t any longer.”