Author: Weizhi Xue

Program of Study: PhD in Chemistry, Physical Sciences Division (PSD)

(Photo taken by author)

Description: A newcomer in Chicago, the author made detailed observations on Chicago’s commuter railway system, including the “L” and Metra. Listen to how he was stunned during his trip from Hyde Park to Chicago’s Loop, and how this journey was different and special to him…

Listen here:


Transcript (provided by author):

“Welcome to the ELI’s Finding Chicago: Global Perspectives Podcast Series for AEPP 2023. I’m your host, Weizhi Xue, and I’m currently enrolled in the University of Chicago’s Department of Chemistry. This podcast was made possible by the AEPP instructor Joshua Ruddy.

(Personal experience begins here.)

When I first arrived in Chicago, the Windy City greeted me with its blue line train scurrying from the Airport to downtown. Of course I could not take rail transit with my two heavy baggages in the deep of the night – that would wear we out from two consecutive 10-hour flights.

After a few days when I settled down in Hyde Park and the University, I decided with my roommate that we will go to downtown together. We were new in town, no different from the flocks of visitors, and of course, we did what all tourists would do – go see the skyscrapers! The Mag Mile! The Chicago River! The Navy Pier!

Of course, if you’re a newcomer, you would use the Maps app in your phone to look for directions. the easiest way to go from Hyde Park is to take the Metra Electric train: my roommate and I are both railway enthusiasts, and when we first entered the Metra station, we felt like embarking on a journey of history.

[Pause with music]

The railways were visibly much older than what we’ve had in China, our home country, and the platforms were also mere awnings along the railways.

The Metra train arrived at the 51st/Hyde Park station with the ringing of its bells approaching, just like what you’d see from the movies. The train has two floors inside, the windows green and aged, and the cityscapes from the windows filtered by this green hue. The vibration of the train carriage was also something more low-frequency and thus more shaky, just like when you ride a bicycle it’s more stable when the speed is faster.

Perhaps you listeners from Chicago or the United States would be familiar with all of this, but trust me, for people from East Asian cities, this Metra train ride felt like a trip with a time machine back into the past, if not a trip to a railway museum.

And if you use the simile of a museum, the Millennium Station would be its most infamous antique. The platform was dark, and the tunnel was barely lit up with few torch-like lights that cast faint orange color to the dark walls. It’s the third millennium ever since the Roman Empire, and I knew that “Millennium” in the name of the station honored its beginning, but sadly, This is a 21st-century station with a vibe from the 19th century.

The Millennium Station was once the former Grand Central Station, and the rail line was opened in 1856, running down from Hyde Park to Grand Central. In other words, we just rode with the earliest section of the Metra Electric line!

After arriving at the Millennium, we went a block westward and saw the elevated tracks of the Loop. The elevated tracks made its way through the narrow distances between the skyscrapers, as if squeezed or sandwiched by them. The Loop is forever busy, just like what it was 100 years ago, but the steel frames it was built on has put on an antique color of rust.

(Personal experience ends here.)

[Pause with music]

(Discussion starts here.)

Chicago was famous for, and proud of its railway system. The railways that radiated from the Loop connect this midwest industrial hub to every corner of this country, but the country does not depend on these railways anymore.

Meanwhile, if you take out your phone and look at Google Maps, the highway traffic, for example, on the Lake Shore Drive and Interstates 90, 94, 55 has become unbearably heavy in recent years. Cars line up on streets and avenues as a place to park themselves.

America has long been “a nation on wheels”, ever since Eisenhower’s ambitious interstate highway plan and the post-war economic boom. Railway transit has long been sidelined, and to many of the Americans, commuting means driving, long-distance travel means flying, and public transit is the somewhat old-fashioned alternative for the people either unable to drive or not economically sustained to own a car.

And this driving culture that derived from post-war economy made Chicago lose its shine as the second largest city in the US in 1980, being superseded by Los Angeles, the City of Angels. More and more people in the United States are moving to the Sun Belt for job opportunities and warmer climate, because Chicago and the Rust Belt in general has fewer high-paid job opportunities. This trend is a consequence of the most recent industrial revolution, and it’s a highly American one.

[Pause with music]

While Chicago’s commuter railway is stagnating and even shrinking, let’s take a brief look at what’s happening in China’s commuter railway systems.

Major Chinese cities have been spending billions of dollars constructing their metro systems, and most of them lay underground, in contrast to Chicago’s elevated commuter railways. The cities have seen a huge expansion in population and area since the 1990s, and the distribution of population inside the cities is often much denser than what we’ve seen in the US.

Let us think about what would happen if everyone there in China owns a car? Road traffic would get paralyzed. Highways and express lanes would get fed up with cars. Pollution could soar, and that was exactly the case with Beijing ten years ago.

Mass transit system, on the other hand, is perfectly designed for this, and this is what most major cities in East Asia have equipped themselves with. Regions outside mainland China, including Korea, Japan and Taiwan have all seen this trend as they built their cities.

But when it comes to long-distance travel, China has also been going on, like, crazy to build a vast and sprawling network of high-speed railways, just like what Japan did in the past decades. When Chinese people talk about long-distance travel, for example, from Beijing to Shanghai, most people choose to travel by rail rather than by air, because this travel on rail is only slightly above four hours – pretty competitive to air travel.

And of course it’s nearly impossible to build such a huge nationwide network for Japan and China without state-owned corporations, huge amounts of state revenues and consistent planning. China’s expansion on infrastructure in recent years have stalled though, since large parts of its infrastructure plan has already been built or underway.

But let’s take a look to the future. What will China’s shiny metro stations look like in 50 years from now? And will America invest again on its infrastructure?

[Pause with music]

When I was doing my neighborhood project, I visited Uptown Chicago and saw the Howard station dismantled for renovation, while the neighboring “L”-train station, Wilson, looked pretty nice. This is probably what is going to happen to the rail transit system in Chicago – renovations will be in place for most stations one by one, now that large-scale construction of new transit lines seemed unlikely.

And this is perhaps what will happen to China’s railway system in the future. People will still be used to rail transit, given that the population will not shrink on a very large scale.

One particular problem that we must come to consider is climate change. Private vehicles contribute to large amounts of CO2 emissions, and in many place of the world, electricity is also obtained through fuels. Taking public transit can significantly reduce CO2 emission per capita by spending much less time driving, given that cars that run on clean energy always have certain shortcomings, from battery life to driving speed limits. But persuading governments and companies to spend money in building new rail transit lines and renovating the Amtrak rail system? That’s still a long way to go.

(Discussion ends here.)

Thank you for listening to this podcast, given by Weizhi Xue, an incoming graduate student in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Chicago. This podcast was impossible without the AEPP program and its instructor, Joshua Ruddy.