Evanston Express and Shoppers Special


The current operation of the Purple Line (Evanston) Express. Trains run express between Howard and Belmont.


Origin of the Evanston Express

"L" operations between the Loop and outlying communities like Wilmette, Niles Center, Oak Park, and Forest Park have always been unusual and a subject of some interest to Chicago transit aficionados. But the express services between Evanston and Chicago is a story that is particularly long, complicated, and interesting.

The Evanston Express service that is run today is regarded as an unusual and special operation, but the earliest express operations between Evanston and downtown Chicago were not extraordinary at all. They were part of the normal schedule throughout the day. Before 1919, the Howard station was not the significant terminal it is today, as all trains operated through to Central (and later Linden). Thus, before this date, all trains running north of Wilson were essentially Evanston trains and many were express runs.

In 1913, some Evanston express trains were through-routed to Jackson Park. The first through-routed northbound express train left Stony Island at 6:28am on November 3rd and arrived at Linden 82 minutes later. A passenger riding the full length of the express paid only 20 cents, an excellent deal. Express service was confined, however, to day and early evening hours. But gradually, through-routed express runs were added late night to satisfy growing demand. Even after 1919, when through-routing services were slightly revised and some trains began to be turned back at the city limits at Howard (after the establishment of a small yard there), many north-south express trains continued beyond Howard to Evanston. These runs were part of the regular schedule, but were generally confined to rush hours.

Between 1914 and 1922, the north side main line between Wilson and Howard was elevated onto a solid-fill embankment and expanded from two tracks to a four track line, allowing full, separate express/local service. With the elevation work mostly completed by mid-1921, southbound express trains from Evanston began to use the western dedicated express track (track #1). But still to be built at this point were permanent stations and the northbound express track. During rush hours, southbound Evanston Express trains made local stops between Linden and Loyola, ran nonstop to Argyle, then resumed express (nonstop) operations to the Loop. At the time, Argyle had an unusual three track two platform layout that allowed passengers to make cross-platform transfers between different southbound trains. By early 1922, the four track main line had been completed and the Northwestern Elevated revised their express schedule. Evanston Expresses would no longer stop at Argyle (which, in its permanent and current form, had only one island platform accessible only by locals). Also, some Expresses were lengthened to eight cars, a first for the "L".

The Evanston-Jackson Park express service was largely unchanged for the next 25 years. On February 23, 1931, the CRT revamped north-south route pairings, but the only change to the Evanston Express was a reduction in the hours of express operations due to falling ridership and as a Depression economy move.


Origin of the Evanston Shopper's Special

Once the assignment of new 4000-series cars was settled in throughout the system in 1922-23, the CRT had the good sense to put the cars' powerful motors to good use by adding midday express trains called "Shopper's Specials" on many lines to better serve Loop shoppers during the 1923 Christmas shopping season. It was the Evanston run that was truly fast (thanks to the four-track express/local separation on the North Side Main Line) and which caught the attention of transit professionals around the country. As originally established, four- or five-car trains of "Plushies" made all stops between Linden and Loyola, then ran express to the Loop, stopping only at Wilson in between. They made the trip from Linden to the Loop in less than an hour, a time unrivaled previously. So popular were the Evanston Shoppers Specials that they were made a permanent part of the schedule. So popular were the Evanston Shoppers Specials that they were made a permanent part of the schedule. In February 1924, the CER added Sunday express services on five lines, including the Evanston branch.


The Modern Evanston Express
(And the Rebirth of the Shoppers Special)

The Evanston Express operation that we know today can be traced back to service revisions instituted by the CTA two years after it took over the rapid transit system. In 1949, the CTA revised all north-south service, modifying and streamlining the Evanston, Skokie, Howard, Ravenswood, and South Side lines. The Evanston Line was reduced to a shuttle between Linden and Howard at all non-rush times. Express service between Linden and the Loop was reduced from day and evening to just rush hours Monday through Saturday. The route was entirely equipped with wood cars at the time and express trains made all stops between Linden and Howard, then called at Morse and Loyola (southbound in the AM and northbound in the PM only), Wilson (all times except northbound in the PM), Chicago, and the Merchandise Mart, then terminated counterclockwise via the Loop outer track. And thus the modern Evanston Express was born.

Evanston Shoppers Special destination sign, 6000-series car, 1956

The next fifty years brought periodic minor revisions. On July 1, 1950, Saturday express service to the Loop was discontinued.

The year 1955 brought a new express service. On November 28th, the Shoppers Special service was reinstated on an experimental basis. The service ran Monday through Friday midday to the Loop using 6000-series cars 6123-6130 (specially equipped with trolley poles) and 5000-series cars 5001-5004. The Shoppers Special made all stops between Linden and South Boulevard, then Fullerton, the Merchandise Mart, and the Loop. They operated on a 30-minute headway with an extra fare collected. On August 10, 1956, Howard was added as a stop on the midday Shoppers Special. The service was short-lived, however. On July 5, 1957, the Shoppers Special was discontinued. To compensate, the morning rush period of the Evanston Express was extended to noon and Evanston-Loop trains discontinued stops at Wilson, Fullerton, and Chicago.

Car 6130-6129 stop at Howard on the Evanston Shoppers' Special run on September 13, 1956. On the Shoppers' Special, cars 6129-30 (which were built with experimental equipment) demonstrated their high performance capabilities on unprecedented schedules. For a larger view, click here. (Photo from the George Krambles Collection)

Besides service changes, the equipment used on the Evanston Express also frequently changed. On September 30, 1957, the Express began to be equipped entirely with 4000-series cars. On October 7th, all 5000- and 6000-series cars were removed and on November 30th, the last of the wood cars were retired from the line (the last use of wood cars in main line service). On December 2nd, sufficient 4000-series cars were assigned to provide all service. On April 2, 1961, 1-50 series single unit PCCs were used for all Evanston service, except during rush hours when 4000s still prevailed.

On November 16, 1964, southbound PM Evanston Express trips were shifted from local track #2 to outer express track #1 between Howard and Granville when trolley wire was removed and third rail installed. The Express continued to use track #2 in the morning so that it could stop at Morse and Loyola.

Evanston Express destination sign, 6000-series car, 1976

Evanston Express destination sign, 1-50 series car, 1978


Evanston Express destination sign variants, 2600-series car, c. 1980s


Evanston Express destination sign, 2600-series car, 2001

The next major change was the result of the opening of the Dan Ryan Line and the through-routing of the West-South Route on Saturday, September 28, 1969. On that day, the Loop returned to operating as a bi-directional railroad. On Monday, September 30th, the Evanston Express was rerouted clockwise on the Inner Loop instead of counterclockwise on the Outer Loop as previously.

With the installation of third rail on the entire Evanston route in November 1973, the need for trolley-equipped trains disappeared and so the last of the 1920s-era 4000-series cars were removed from the Evanston route and retired from CTA service. The Evanston Shuttle and Express was now entirely operated by 6000- and 1-50 series PCC cars. For a short period beginning on September 30, 1974, afternoon Evanston Express trips began to be made with 5-car trains, using any combinations of double-unit 6000s and single-unit 1-50s. This short-lived operation was changed on December 9th of the same year, when afternoon runs were increased to 6-car trains.

On December 20, 1976, the stops at Morse and Loyola were discontinued and the Evanston Express began to use tracks #1 and 4 at all times between Howard and Wilson. No significant changes occurred for over 10 years until January 30, 1989, when three additional stops were added: Belmont, Fullerton, and Chicago. At the same time, the Evanston Express surcharge was raised to twice the normal CTA surcharge price and was collected by an onboard conductor south of Howard. A little over a year later, on April 15, 1990, the hours of the late morning service on the Evanston Express were cut back. The last train leaving the Loop to return to Linden was scaled back from 12 o'clock noon to 10am. The loss of the last two hours of morning rush service, which effectively kept the expresses running until midday, eliminated the last vestiges of the old Shoppers Special service, for whose loss the expresses had been extended to compensate back in '57. The effective date for this change was originally to be April 29, but it was moved up two weeks from the "announced" date at the last minute, possibly because financial crisis at the time was severe enough to warrant implementing the cost-saving change as soon as possible.

On December 4, 1992, the last scheduled trip of the 1950s-era 6000-series cars was operated on the Evanston Express. On February 21, 1993, the line name nomenclature was officially changed, with each line given a color name. Evanston services became the Purple Line, with the Loop express service renamed the Purple Line Express. It is still often unofficially referred to as the Evanston Express, however. On September 20th, rush period express service was reduced, with two PM trips from Kimball Yard eliminated from the schedule.

The year 1997 brought a quick barrage of changes to the Evanston Express service. On June 22nd, one person train operation (OPTO) began on the Purple Line. The job of the motorman and conductor were combined into an "operator", but because of the surcharge on the Express, a special "collector" was assigned to rush periods as necessary. On June 23rd, Purple Line Expresses began making additional stops at Wellington, Diversey, Armitage, and Sedgwick. Although many riders complained that the extra stops made the operations at lot less express, it was done to ease overcrowding on the Brown Line in the popular, gentrifying Lakeview, Lincoln Park, and Near North Side neighborhoods. At the same time, the express surcharge was eliminated and running time was increased due to both the additional stops and extra time required by OPTO. On October 6th, the destination signs on the trains were changed to show the terminals (Linden, Howard, Loop) rather than the route names (Linden-Howard, Evanston Express).

Purple Line Express operations went largely unchanged, except for some fine-tuning, for the next four and a half years until late 2001. At that time, Federal Job Access Reverse Commute (JARC) funds became available to provide additional service on the Purple Line Express, providing earlier morning and later evening rush service to help urban workers reverse commuting to northern suburban jobs and vice versa. The JARC program, established under TEA-21, provides funding for transportation services designed to increase access to jobs and employment-related activities. "Job Access" projects are considered by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to be those that transport welfare recipients and low-income individuals, including economically disadvantaged persons with disabilities, in urban, suburban, or rural areas to and from jobs and activities related to their employment. JARC funds tend to be difficult to use, becuase unlike other programs that provide a 80%-20% federal-local match, JARC is only a 50-50 match, usually leaving only larger agencies like CTA who can find more matching funds able to take advantage of the program.

Effective Monday, December 17, 2001, Purple Line Express service to the Loop began an hour earlier during morning rush periods and operated an hour later in afternoon rush periods under a six-month experimental plan. The first Purple Line Express left Linden at 5:24am, arrived at the Merchandise Mart southbound at 6:05am, and returned to Linden at 6:55am instead of at 8:01am as before. During afternoon rush periods, the last train left Linden at 6:28pm, arrived at the Merchandise Mart southbound at 7:09pm, and returned to Linden at 8:00pm instead of at 7:06pm. After six months, the success of the program was to be reviewed.

When six months was up, CTA planners found their review of the expanded service's success to be inconclusive. There seemed to be some increase in ridership, but some issues were unclear. Additionally, it was felt that more time might be needed to get the word out about the improved service and attract more riders. So, on July 10, 2002 the Chicago Transit Board approved the six-month extension of the experimental expanded service on the Purple Express. After additional study and more time to attract riders, CTA found that the expanded service did indeed attract many new riders to the service. Other results also became clearer, which had made the CTA's study unclear before, such as that many of the new riders coming into the city weren't riding through to the Loop, but were only riding to stations on the Near North Side. With traffic counts previously being made in or nearer to the Loop, the results of the experiment were unclear; With the checkpoint moved north to Belmont, the true number of people using the expanded express service was clarified. The expanded hours on the Purple Line Express were made permanent December 30, 2002. At the end of 2003, the JARC funds will run out and CTA will have to pay for the expanded service out of regular operating funds.


The Ravenston

One of the unusual parts of the Evanston Express is a type of run known as the "Ravenston". Generally speaking, it is any rush hour run that operates part of the time as a Ravenswood train and part of the time as an Evanston Express. There have been different variations of the Ravenston operations and it has been run for slightly different reasons over a period of about twenty years.

The first Ravenston runs began in 1980 because the Evanston Express required more equipment in the PM rush than Linden Yard or Howard Yard could hold. So, the evening Evanston Express began to use sets of Ravenswood equipment to balance the rush hour service requirements. These Ravenston runs unofficially began at Kimball Yard and ran as Ravenswood trains to the Merchandise Mart, where they "magically" turned into Evanston Expresses. This practice continued for 13 years with various car requirements. A few periodic examples include:

This practice apparently continued until September 20, 1993 when the weekday rush period on the Purple Line was reduced. With fewer Express trips, the two PM rush trips put out from Kimball Yard were eliminated and the Ravenston apparently went into a period of dormancy. The motorman on the last of these Ravenston runs -- which was ironically run 512, the same run number used for the present Ravenston operation -- was Irwin W. Davis, who still works as an operator out of Howard. "At that time, I was picking a C-trick (something different everyday) and I only had that run on Friday," recalls Line Instructor Davis. "I personally liked that run, it was a lot of fun and broke up the monotony."

On Monday January 31, 2000, the Ravenston made a return, but in a different form. Actually, it was for the opposite reason as before! This time, the Brown Line (Ravenswood) needed extra service in response to the growing ridership in the Lakeview and Lincoln Park neighborhoods (which also resulted in Purple Line [Evanston] Express trains making all stops south of Belmont stating June 23, 1997 and the upcoming Brown Line Expansion Project), but lacked the cars to do it. A new Ravenston operation, run 512 out of Howard Yard, was instituted. The train departs Howard station at 0805 hours and upon reaching Belmont at 0817 it "turns" into a Ravenswood. The car bears Evanston Express destination signs (a purple "Loop" reading) and markers (white-white), but has a sign on the safety chains of the front car that reads "Brown Line Express" in white letters on a brown background. After the train circles the Loop counterclockwise on the Outer Loop (as a Brown Line train), the Ravenston leaves the Merchandise Mart station northbound at 0847 hours as a Purple Line Express to Linden.

In December 2000, CTA Rail Operations operated a few more Ravenston trains due to a lack of equipment caused by inclement weather. The Ravenswood was beyond capacity of cars, with approximately 126 out of the 138 assigned cars assigned to the Kimball putout in the morning. The equipment for run X435 (a Brown Line run number) was dragged from Howard Yard. Runs X519 and X520 were putouts from Howard Yard that left Howard station around 0530 hours. These two runs operated as Purple Line Expresses until they reach Library-State/Van Buren, when they turned into Brown Line trains and operate to Kimball terminal. On their second trip of the day, X519 and X520 turned back into Purple Line Express trains on the Loop, and run to Linden where they lay-up (or are shuttled back to Howard and are laid-up there). These extras only lasted a couple of days in December for the equipment shortage.

Starting Monday April 9, 2001, the CTA added three more Ravenston runs to its morning schedule. The three trips, runs 541, 542, and 543, are out of Howard, using Red Line equipment because the Rave is operating at capacity. Terminal capacity at Kimball has been exhausted, so to add trains to the Brown Line the CTA needs to use Howard Yard's extra capacity for more Brown Line trains. These runs are being added despite some discussion as to whether they violate an arbitrator's ruling between the CTA and ATU Local 308 stating that Kimball and Howard are two separate sections (therefore meaning Howard is taking work away from Kimball, which is a violation of union rules). The CTA and Local 308 officials, however, have determined that the runs are permissible and will be added next month. The details of the runs are as follows:

Run 541

Run 542

Run 543

The Ravenston runs are constantly evolving and will likely continue to change as riding patterns and car requirements and availability shift.


The Brown Line Capacity Expansion Project

On April 2, 2007, the Purple Line Express service was altered due to the beginning of Three-Track Operation, wherein the Red, Brown and Purple Express trains operated on three tracks instead of four at the Belmont and Fullerton stations to allow the island platforms to be rebuilt and tracks to be reconfigured to allow room for elevators to be installed at the renovated stations. During the 2-year period of Three-Track Operation, Purple Line Express service was reduced from every 7-8 minutes to every 15 minutes due to decreased track capacity in the Three-Track zone. (Shuttle service between Linden and Howard remained at every 7-8 minutes during rush periods.) In addition, Purple Line Express trains were rerouted via the Outer track in the Loop -- the same side currently used by the Brown Line -- to make it easier for customers to board either route and exit the Loop at the first opportunity. With conclusion of three-track operation at the Belmont station, the Purple Line Express trains resumed operation traveling clockwise on the Loop on Monday, December 29, 2008.


Late Evening Trip Pilot

On Monday, June 1, 2015, CTA began offering an additional Purple Line Express trip on weekday evenings in a six-week pilot to determine demand for later evening service between the Loop and Evanston/Wilmette. The later, additional trip was not immediately after the existing last trip, but rather was an isolated trip running about 90 minutes after the last rush period Loop express trip. At the time of the pilot, the last express train left Linden at 6:30pm, heading to the Loop, and then making the run back to arrive at Linden at 8:22pm.

The pilot service mirrored existing Purple Line Express service and made stops at all regular Purple Line Express stops. Through July 10, 2015, the additional Loop-bound train was scheduled to depart Linden station at 8pm and arrive at the Clark/Lake Loop station at approximately 8:50pm. The Linden-bound train departed Washington/Wells at 9pm and arrived back at Linden at 9:50pm. The Purple Line Express saves as much as 10 minutes of travel time for customers by eliminating the need to transfer between the Red and Purple lines at Howard.

The pilot came at a minimal cost of approximately $7,000 and provided valuable information in determining the viability of extending the Purple Line Express service hours. The CTA agreed to initiate the pilot after several surveys of local riders, including one of Northwestern University students, indicating strong support for later train service. For the service to continue beyond the pilot dates, the CTA required ridership of at least 468 people on the train, or 39 people per car on a six-car train, including both Loop-bound and Linden-bound service. If the pilot is successful and reaches the 468-rider threshold, the CTA will evaluate funding to continue service.

CTA staff made an official passenger count on Thursday, June 25, 2015, a date previously agreed upon with Evanston city officials and announced publicly, to measure interest in the later train service. Evanston officials, including Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, several aldermen and the city manager, gathered at the Davis platform and rode the train on the appointed evening. Officials then rode the train from Davis through the Belmont stop, hoping to boost the numbers. However, CTA service planners counted a total of only 66 people on the train, or 11 per car, far below the 468 CTA said the train needed to justify its continued operation. According to Evanston's intergovernmental affairs director, the CTA conducted counts before the night Evanston officials rode the train and, after starting low, the numbers had increased. According to the CTA, the ridership estimates from the June 25 count are consistent with the agency's preliminary ridership data, but it is too soon to determine what conclusions will be drawn once the pilot is completed.1

On July 13, 2015, the Monday after the pilot ended, the CTA announced that the later Purple Line Express train wouldn't go beyond trial period, saying ridership numbers didn't justify continuing the pilot program. At the conclusion of the pilot, the CTA's ridership analysis showed an average of only 89 passengers per train.2.


Express Track Renewal, 2015

On July 9, 2015, Chicago Mayor Emanuel and CTA President Dorval Carter Jr. announced a new $30 million track improvement project on Purple Line Express tracks (tracks 1 and 4, on the North Side Main Line) between Lawrence and Jarvis, to improve service for Purple Line Express customers.

The goal of the project was to eliminate a major slow zone that had belied the "express" part of the Purple Line Express for some time. The project replaced about 16,500 ties, plates and fasteners, ballast, ties and fasteners at the Berwyn Crossover, and 5,500 linear feet of rail on Track 4 from Lawrence to just north of Bryn Mawr with new 115-pound jointed rail, joint bars, rail-to-rail joint bonds and fasteners. The program was the first major work done along the express tracks since the early to mid-1970s.

Construction on the tracks took place on on weeknights and weekends to minimize impacts to neighboring homes and businesses. Some work had minimal to no impact to Red Line service during construction periods, but during other times it was necessary to close the Red Line track immediately adjacent to the Purple Line Express track being worked on due to the proximity of the two tracks, resulting in a reroute that required one direction of the Red Line to use the other express track and bypass several local Red Line stations during the work period (typically overnight or a weekend). The work had no impact on regularly scheduled Purple Line Express service throughout the rehabilitation.

Construction on the project begin July 20, 2015. As of December 2015, about 92 percent of ties had been replaced, along with 5,400 feet of rail; all third (contact) rail chairs had been replaced along Track 4, while rail bonding work was ongoing. The project was substantially complete by January 2016, as punchlist work was completed during January and early February 2016.


Thanks to Andre Kristopans for confirming the date of the Evanston Express cutback in 1990.


1. Seidenberg, Bob. "Evanston officials ride Purple Line to boost later service, CTA measures interest". Evanston Review. June 30, 2015.
2. Seidenberg, Bob. "CTA says later Purple Line Express train failed pilot". Evanston Review. July 13, 2015.