If there was ever a prototype for the Little Engine That Could, it was the North Shore's Electroliners. In 1939 interurban systems like the Chicago North Shore & Milwaukee were a dying breed. Once the latest word in intercity transportation, these fast, comfortable electric railways were one by one falling victim to the automobile and the Depression. But on November 15, 1939, Col. Albert A. Sprague, receiver for the bankrupt North Shore, petitioned the Chicago District Court of the United States for permission to buy two new trains to help save the railroad. Just a year earlier, Col. Sprague had convinced the North Shore's striking workers to return to work and take a pay cut that essentially paid for the new trains. Although they were only a small part of Col. Sprague's modernization program, the Electroliners became a symbol of hope and determination for both the North Shore's employees and the lineside communities that depended on the railroad.
Patterned in part on the pioneering Burlington Zephyr, the Electroliners were described by the Chicago Daily Times as the work of "a group of American mechanics who made their professional pride and talent substitute for a wad of money." The two identical four-car trains were fast, smooth, luxurious, comfortable, and arguably the finest interurbans ever built. A tavern-lounge car offered food and beverage service. Quotes in the North Shore Line News reported employees' first impressions of the new trains: "You feel like you are hardly moving, they ride so easily.They decelerate from high speed as smooth as a feather floating down.The outside colors are a knockout but look at those interiors - there is nothing like them.Inside they are so roomy you wonder where the space comes from.The artists who did those murals in the cars knew what is needed in these times - there's a smile in every figure; something that puts you in a good humor."
The Electroliners entered regular service on Sunday, February 9, 1941, running five round trips daily between Chicago and Milwaukee, in hot competition with the Milwaukee Road's Hiawatha and the Chicago & North Western's 400. Because they reached their Chicago terminal on the elevated tracks of Chicago's Loop, the Electroliners had curved sides, narrow at the bottom to fit the elevated's high platforms and wider at the waist to offer passengers more room - a design that the Chicago "L" would later adopt for its own cars. The Electroliners and the determination they symbolized bought the North Shore another 22 years of life after most other interurbans had vanished. When the North Shore closed down in 1963, the little trains - which together had run more than 6.7 million miles - moved on to the Philadelphia Suburban Transportation Company, also known as the Red Arrow Lines. Their trolley poles were removed, and they took power from the third-rail pickup shoes they had used on the Chicago "L". Repainted and renamed the Liberty Liners, the two trainsets served until 1979. Today you can visit them at the Illinois Railway Museum, which has restored its Electroliner to North Shore colors, or the Rockhill Trolley Museum.
Read a two-part Trains magazine article on the Electroliners by clicking HERE.