Why Does Our Train Run on the Wrong Track?

Gazette Article by: Tom Hermes
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall 1996

There is no easy answer to the question, “Why does the Chicago & North Western Railroad run on the left track?” In fact, the entire original system is left-handed. Although it is the only one of its kind in the United States, no records could be found to explain why.

Nonetheless, two theories have emerged. One is that the line was designed by the English. The second, and more likely, suggests that convenience started us commuting south-paw style.

Most early American railroads were designed by English engineers who brought with them expertise, equipment, and a left-side tradition. This is most likely why the theory arose that they were responsible for our left-handed system. However, the first double-track designs in the East were American style.

Early Illinois train service ran on a single trace. A train traveled to its destination, rotated on a turntable (Winnetka’s was at Spruce Street and Green Bay Road), and returned. The more probable theory for our left-side track layout is passenger convenience.

Turntable at Spruce Street c1890

The first component of what was to become the Chicago & North Western Railroad was the Little Galena and Chicago Union Railroad Company. Tracks were laid west from Chicago to Geneva, where the first station was to be built. The company built the station on the north side of the tracks where most of the people lived. This saved passengers the inconvenience of having to cross the tracks to go home.

When traffic required double tracks, the only place to lay new rails was south of the original single tracks. Since the stations were used primarily by passengers waiting to travel into Chicago, the company decided to run east-bound trains on the old track so riders would not have to cross the tracks to board—a dangerous process.

This set the precedent. As other lines were added and the network became the Chicago & North Western, the practice continued. Today the C&NW (now part of Union Pacific) remains the only left-handed railroad in the country.

Editor’s Note: The first tracks through Winnetka were laid by the Chicago & Milwaukee Railroad Co. When the Chicago & North Western took over and began double tracking, new stations in Winnetka were built on the east side. These survived until the grade separation.

This article was researched in The Pioneer Railroad, The Story of the Chicago & North Western System, by Robert J. Casey and W.A.S. Douglas.

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5 Responses to “Why Does Our Train Run on the Wrong Track?”

  1. July 11, 2015 at 1:48 AM #

    This is likely true. The Arlington Park station is on the opposite side of the tracks due to the proximity of Northwest Highway to tracks.

    Commuters run across the tracks from the station to the platform in the morning. You should see how dangerous that is.

    Commuters tend to arrive a few minutes before their train leaves; and leave immediately once they arrive at their station.

    This works out well on the other stations which are on the opposite or “left-hand” side of the tracks.

  2. August 8, 2016 at 12:52 PM #

    Trains running north our of New York also run on the left (and sometimes on the right). Why is this and why do they swop sides?
    see Michael Portillo’s Great American Railroads!

  3. November 9, 2017 at 12:02 PM #

    If English engineers already designed all passenger cars left-handed in America, why do you want to switch even though the double track was introduced later? Just like we are still using miles and feet while the world is using km and meters.

  4. August 17, 2018 at 9:47 PM #

    While it may true that the passenger operations of the “C&NW (now part of Union Pacific) remains the only left-handed railroad in the country,” I have observed freight traffic on the Conrail/CSX/Norfolk Southern segment in central New Jersey (formerly Lehigh Valley trackage) routinely running to the left.

  5. October 17, 2021 at 12:32 AM #

    I grew up in Jefferson, Iowa, which is on the double main line of the UP (formerly C&NW). When I was a child, I definitely noticed trains ran on the left side. Now the UP trains run on the right side. So perhaps with the acquisition, or sometime along the way, the UP changed sides. More online research to do….there is also an excellent UP museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

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