Train Watching

A few spots around North / Northwestern Illinois to watch some trains
(last update 2006-04-12)

Creston IL

At the west end of town, the last crossing (Transit St), Union Pacific trains from Rochelle must pull up a good hill. Coal trains often move very slow (often you can walk faster than them) allowing for a nice long view of the engines. Park on the north side of the tracks. The crossing bell is on the south side of the tracks allowing for a less annoying visit.

The eastern most crossing also has a viewing area. On the north side of the tracks on the east side of the road is a large parking lot of a FS-fertilizer? Plant. Nice when a waiting westbound starts up.

Rochelle IL
Diamond & rail park platform

The Diamond is where the UP and BNSF double tracks cross each other. They cross at an angle thus forming a diamond shape. Just east of the diamond (50 to 100 feet) is a new rail park covered viewing platform. The entrance to the rail park is on Ninth street between the two sets of tracks. Parking for the diamond is on Second Ave – anywhere on the south side of the street by the tracks. This is the (if I’m told correctly) the only place in the U.S. where two major main lines cross each other. I believe Rochelle lists that about 120 trains per day pass through the town. That’s a train every 12 minutes! A bit hard to believe but it’s not far off the mark. First Ave heading east is an easy way to get to Creston.

Rochelle IL
BNSF south yard

Take First Ave east and go over the BNSF tracks. The 4-way stop is at Caron Rd. Follow the BNSF tracks to the south (take a right). Caron Rd will follow the tracks out into the countryside. About where the road/tracks go under the Interstate. Just north of the Interstate are some switches and engines will work in this area.

Davis Junction IL

From the 251/72 intersection proceed west on 72. Coming into Davis Junction you will cross over a set of tracks. Take the first road to the left. It goes straight south for about 2 or 3 houses and the road turns to the right. Take a left at this bend, crossing over a track set. This is the last set of tracks to cross. Ahead and to the right is a large area where the “Track Inn” was. This was a restaurant that was enclosed by rails on all sides. Unfortunately it burned about 1996 and was not (is yet to be?) rebuilt. The area where the restaurant was is the place to park. Not too many trains (IMRL east/west line and Soo?? north/south) pass through so if you don’t see an active train doing some switching keep driving.

Belvidere IL
UP yard

Take Newburg road east into Belvidere. Look for the Belvedere Corporation (Revlon Rd). Turn right/south and proceed to the tracks. These are holding / staging tracks for the Chrysler Assembly plant cars. Cross the tracks and turn to the right. The railroad has a maintenance area here. You can drive to the area where the main building is and then turn around. Maps list the road as proceeding further but it turns to gravel and looks like it may be private/railroad property. Little activity occurs here but it’s close and if I’m driving by it is worth a stop to see.

Savanna IL

Savanna in general is a wonderful and scenic area! Pick a nice day and go for a walk. The IMRL (the same tracks that go along route 72) goes west through the valley (at the south end of town) then crosses the Mississippi river. The valley is an old switching yard for, perhaps, the Savanna Army Depot. The BNSF follows the eastern bank of the river with a line that heads through Rochelle and on to Chicago. The IMRL, after crossing the river, follows it on the western bank.

One area to sit is in Marquette park, right on the river. There is a rare spot where a standard road runs directly aside the tracks. If heading west on Rt 52, at the point where 52 turns north, go straight west instead of turning north with 52. This is a one-way heading north along the tracks that goes into the park. At the junction of this road and 52 is a restored train car. I don’t know why it is there but it looks nice. The double track BNSF has good traffic. If you follow the BNSF tracks south you will end up in the parking lot of a newer, large grocery/general market store. Go to the back corner of the lot. Here you are close to the crossing of the two train lines (50 feet). Following east from this point and staying close to the IMRL tracks is a dirt road that goes to the IMRL old yard office. Just on the north side of the office is a standard road. Take the dirt road to the office then hop over to the standard road. That can be taken east to a major road/bridge that crosses the valley or returns to 64.

For a nice adventure grab a detailed map and follow the river from Savanna up to Galena. The tracks that go through Galena are the same that go through Rockford (the southern most set of tracks on Mulford road).

Savanna IL
Mississippi Palisades State Park

Up on the bluffs are several look out points. Aside from the overall great view are the double snake tracks hugging the river. Binoculars are handy (and not just for the trains).

If you would like to see the sport of rock climbing in action this one of a select few areas in the northern Illinois area. From the southern most park entrance and the north side of town look for a pull off area. This area will hold 6 to 10 cars and is at the base of a popular climbing area. If you see some cars, stop in. The walk from the parking area to the bluff base is but 20 or 30 feet. Look up for ropes and climbers working the rock face.

Sabula IA
IMRL river crossing

Sabula IA is a Mississippi river island town (bring your fishing gear). To get to it you need to cross “the bridge.” It’s hard to miss – tall & silver. When crossing notice the steel grate floor - you can look straight down to the water. Simply follow the road across the bridge and it will take you to Sabula. On the south east side of the town is a thin park at the waters edge. Aside from being a nice park is the attraction of a railroad swing bridge. The bridge is manned continuously when the river is in operation with tug boats. The house on the bridge is where the person sits (and perhaps does a lot of reading). It’s interesting to see the bridge in motion for the simple fact that they are often seen open or closed – but not in the act of opening or closing. When it moves it is silent. Only when the tracks are connected/disconnected is sound produced.

When looking east across the river at the eastern bank (though it’s not really the eastern bank of the river as it is fill for the tracks) is the IMRL track. Trains cross the river, make a sharp left turn, head north to Savanna then turn right and head east toward Chicago. Late afternoon sun does a nice job lighting a train as well as the bluffs.

If you take the main road west out of Sabula you will cross the IMRL tracks on the western edge of the river. The first left is a public gravel road leading to several houses. The railroad has a siding and often several cars are there. A rare day finds a train switching cars.

Rock Island IL
Lock and Dam #15 / Rock Island Arsenal

Take a trip to the Quad Cities/Rock Island area. At Lock and Dam #15 is a double deck swing bridge. Trains on the top and autos on the bottom. You are almost guaranteed to see the bridge operate during a summer visit. Because auto traffic utilizes the bridge it must close for the cars (regular train bridges often stay open for tug traffic and only close when an occasional train comes) and routinely opens for tugs. So at this place is a lock & dam (with its traffic) and a swing bridge for cars & trains. To take it a step further is that you can stand directly under the bridge as it is a sidewalk area. A small sign simply asks people to not hold on to the bridge when it is in motion. The underside of the bridge is about 3 to 5 feet above your head. An odd feeling seeing a huge structure start moving and you are underneath it. Again, once it is moving it is silent.

Contact the US Army Corps for tour information. They give free lock & dam tours on certain days – first come first served. The tour takes you across two of the large set of ‘doors’ in the main lock area and down to the dam generating room and further down to the spillway area. One fact is that the electricity for the visitor center and lock/dam needs is generated at the dam. The tour is worth the phone call.

Like the Savanna area, pick a nice day.

Running with a train (aka "pacing")

There are a few places where a road and a track will run alongside each other. When you can find a train going in your direction, and no other cars about, you can pace along with the train (trains typically run at 40 to 50 MPH). This way you can see the engines bobbing about on the tracks and hear the crossings as the engineers do. The engine sound is completely different than listening to them as they pass by.

Rt 30 between Shabbona and Waterman, also to Hinckley (and somewhat to Big Rock)

Rt 72 between Kirkland and Genoa (my favorite)
Rt 72 between Forreston (about 2 miles east of) and Leaf River

Track road between Ashton and Franklin Grove (dirt/gravel road with some pot holes)