Elevated trains have now been rumbling along Chicago’s streets for 125 years.
For nearly a third of that time — 38 years — Fred Lonnes helped design the iconic L cars that have become emblematic of the city.
“The system was always about evolving. It still is,” Lonnes said Tuesday afternoon on the Clark/Lake platform. He retired in 2014 but made his way downtown to answer questions from curious commuters and amateur transit historians, as the CTA rolled out its Heritage Fleet to mark the 125th anniversary of the first L trains deployed in Chicago.
The fleet includes vintage 4000-series rail cars built in 1923, and 2400-series cars built in 1976.
“It gives you an idea of how far we’ve come. It was coal and steam pushing four wooden cars in 1892,” Lonnes said of the first L train that ran along State Street between 39th Street and Congress.
“Now, that car could hit 70 mph,” he said, pointing to one of the CTA’s sleek new 3200-series trains. “That is, if the speed limit on the tracks wasn’t 35 mph.”
Lonnes wasn’t the only one drawn downtown for a quick ride through the past. Lina Carr said she heard on the morning news that the old trains would be running, so she and wife Carla Carr made the trip from Chatham.
“It was amazing,” Lina Carr said. “Just riding in this vintage train, and seeing the classic architecture downtown — it really felt like we were traveling through time.”
Dan Waadt took advantage of his lunch break to ride around the Loop in a 4000-series car. “When you hear Chicago, you think of the L,” he said.
Aside from the bold red, white and blue stripes running along the exterior, the 2400-series trains looks a lot like the everyday L cars on the rails today, Ravenswood resident Marc Conrad noted.
But he and his 3-year-old son Oliver, nose glued to the window, were unfazed.
“I don’t think he minds,” Conrad said as they made an extra trip around the Loop on their way to the Harold Washington Library Center. “He loves trains.”
If indistinguishable by style, the interiors of the 2400-series cars still carry their share of nostalgia. Connie Washington snapped photos of 1970s-era advertisements posted along the top of the car, including one for Zayre, the now-defunct retail chain.
“My family and I would always stop at Zayre’s on our way to my grandparents’ home in Harvey,” Washington said. “That really took me back to when I was a little girl in the ’70s.”
Washington said she was disappointed she missed a ride on a 4000-series train, but relieved when a worker clad in old-fashioned striped engineer’s overalls told her the cars would be making more appearances throughout the year. The CTA said it has a series of tours, contests and giveaways planned as the city celebrates the 125th anniversary.
“Few inventions have had such an impact on Chicago as the historic ‘L’,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement. “Our transit system is the city’s heartbeat that moves us forward. The story of the ‘L’ is the story of Chicago’s innovation and ingenuity.”