SKOKIE, Ill. (CBS) — Can you imagine people by the dozens leaving a CTA ‘L’ train and telling the crew, “Thank you?” It happened Saturday as hundreds of people jammed the CTA’s antique 90-year-old ‘L’ train, and the transit agency celebrated the 50th birthday of the Skokie Swift.
Riders cheerfully filled the seats and stood in the aisles, swapping stories about rides on the Swift, also known as the Yellow Line, which links downtown Skokie with the Howard ‘L’ terminal.
Among those on hand was Bruce Anderson, who was motorman of the first Skokie Swift train in 1964, and was one of those running the antique two-car train Saturday. He worked at the CTA’s Skokie repair shops 50 years ago and helped prepare ‘L’ cars for the new line. He said he’s not sure why the project manager, future CTA Executive Director George Krambles, chose him to run the first train. But he said no one was prepared for the crowds that jammed the line the first day of service.
CTA historian Bruce Moffat said Krambles expected perhaps 1,000 riders. Nearly 4,000 showed up, and the line’s four cars were inundated.
Anderson said Krambles was on the platform — and began issuing orders.
“He threw the schedule away and they grabbed other cars,” Anderson said.
It wasn’t so easy because half of the Skokie Swift was powered by third rail and the other half from an overhead trolley wire.
“The Evanston cars had (trolley power collection) poles on them, but no pantographs, so they supplemented with those,” he said.
Within days, spare Evanston cars began to be re-equipped with pantographs designed to stand up to the higher speed on the Swift and were deployed. When that still proved inadequate because of growing crowds, CTA reassigned four three-car train sets from the Ravenswood line.
The Swift did not begin to offer Sunday service regularly until 2008, but rail instructor John Zupko recalled the football specials that used to run for Bear home games when he was a child.
Zupko said he would tag along with his father, who opened the line on those Sundays. Zupko said he decided on a transit career at the age of seven after one very special ride on a train returning empty from Howard to the Dempster/Skokie terminal.
“As legend has it, on the northbound trip the train operator actually let me operate it,” Zupko said. “He let me put my tow little hands on top of what was called the Cineston (a lever that controlled acceleration and braking) and he put his hand on top of mine and he let me operate as a seven-year-old little boy.”
Zupko was hooked.
“That was my first taste of train operation,” he said. “I said absolutely, I want to do something like this and 35 years later, here I am still doing it.”
Zupko has been a CTA rail instructor for 28 of those years and a part of his job is to make sure those who operate the antique train know what they’re doing.
Moffat said that ‘L’ trains ran from 1925 till 1948 to what would become Skokie but were a failure, because few people lived there. At the time the line closed, it lost $200,000 a year. The tracks remained as part of a line that linked Chicago and Milwaukee, but that shut down in early 1963.
By that time, things were changing rapidly. In 1964, the housing boom had arrived, and the CTA and the village of Skokie took a gamble that people would want to ride a high speed train between Dempster and Howard to connect with the rest of the ‘L’ system. They asked the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — there was no Department of Transportation then — to pay for start-up costs and underwrite a two-year service demonstration.
“It was a runaway success,” Moffat said.
The federal government was so impressed that HUD, and later the Transportation Department, would begin issuing grants for construction, expansion and, in some areas, to cover operating losses to transit agencies across the country.
Moffat said automobiles taken off area roads because of the Swift reduced traffic jams and said the result was cleaner air.
CTA was fortunate to inherit a line that had been maintained well until its 1963 abandonment, but over the succeeding years it has been rebuilt completely. The old ‘L’ stations that dotted the line were all torn down in the mid 1960s, but in 2012, a station reopened on the site of the original Oakton station in downtown Skokie. The 1964-vintage Dempster station has been replaced, and there has been talk over the years of extending the line to both the Old Orchard and Northbrook Court shopping malls.
Although the CTA in the mid 1990s re-christened it the Yellow Line, many local residents and regular riders still refer to the line as “the Swift,” and the Swift bird insignia that has been the line’s emblem since it opened can still be found on CTA signage.
Today, said CTA historian Graham Garfield, the line carries more than 6,300 riders on the average weekday.
“The politicians and other dignitaries in Skokie said they needed service out here,” Zupko said. “It was met with great response and it still is today. The ridership in Skokie is remarkable, especially with the new station opening up at Oakton. So the forefathers had foresight.”