History of the IRM - A Museum In Motion


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The Illinois Railway Museum is a Museum in Motion. Watch now, as a little red streetcar clangs across Depot Street on the car line, or as the thundering steam train whistles past on the mainline, or perhaps as the gleaming streamliner simply whispers by. These artifacts don't just sit there, they move!

To the casual observer it all looks so simple. Just get into an oldtime outfit, drive a locomotive around a bit, and treat the kids to a train ride. But, behind that simplicity lies a system of rules, training, and operational practices that rival all but a handful of mainline railroads, and result in a safety record that is second to none.

When you consider that it is all done with volunteer operating personnel, this accomplishment is all the more remarkable. Our volunteers, only a few of whom have any common-carrier railroad experience, have been thoroughly schooled in train-handling skills, safety practices, and public operations. They are familiar not only with the rail equipment, but with the railroad they operate over.

The Museum's operating demonstration railroad consists of two distinct divisions: the 5-mile long mainline, and the mile-long streetcar loop. Generally, steam, diesel and heavy electric trains run on the mainline, while streetcars run on the streetcar line. Interurban and elevated trains may operate on either division. The streetcar curves are too sharp for conventional railroad equipment, and the streetcars are too slow for mainline service. The hybrid interurbans and "L" cars can operate in either environment.

The mainline is equipped with trolley wire so that electric cars can obtain the 600 volt DC power needed for their propulsion. Steam and diesel locomotives, of course, carry their fuel with them, but an electric car must depend on the overhead trolley wire for power.

Weekend operations during the season feature a steam or diesel train that departs from the Museum's East Union depot on a posted schedule. During the forty minute round trip to Kishwaukee Grove, the trains roll past a small farmstead, a bit of Illinois prairie and a rural grade crossing before dropping into the Kishwaukee Valley. Interurban and elevated trains depart from the 50th Avenue rapid transit station and then cover the same route as the steam and diesel trains. Occasionally, the interurbans and "L's" will make a turn around the car line before heading toward the mainline.

While scheduled trains ply the mainline tracks, one or more streetcars make the rounds on the car line. Because the streetcar line is used for on-the-property transportation as well as for tours, the cars operate on a regular "headway" (usually from five to fifteen minutes, depending on demand), and make stops at the major display buildings. Weekday operations, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, are a bit more relaxed. Usually, a single lightweight interurban car departs hourly from the East Union depot, circles the car line and then proceeds to the mainline. This trip, which covers both divisions of the railroad, is called a "supertrip."

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Maintaining the operating fleet of the Museum is critical to the ongoing service of the demonstration railway. While the primary function of the Electric Car, Railroad Passenger Coach, Steam, and Diesel shops is the restoration of equipment, a secondary function is the inspection, repair and preventive maintenance of the cars used in operations. Each year, the service cars are inspected for worn parts, structural damage and breakage, before they are cleared for service.

The train crews and operators, however, are the main enforcers of safety. A brake and safety inspection is made by the operator before the beginning of each shift, and service report cards on the rolling stock are filed at the end of each shift. If a dangerous condition is encountered during the day, the operator is authorized to withdraw the car from service pending inspection by shop workers. The train crews, then, are the front line of safe operations.

Like the crews on common-carrier railroads they are vitally concerned with personnel and customer safety. But, at IRM there is yet another factor—these trains are one-of-a-kind pieces of living history. Careful train handling is more than safety or "on time" performance at the Museum, it is a function of historic preservation.

During operations, train movements are controlled by the Dispatcher. This operating manager gives instructions to the various trains, either by voice signal (radio) or by written orders so they may travel over the railroad in an orderly, safe and timely fashion. On a single-track railroad such as the Museum's main line, the Dispatcher must keep track of both Eastward and Westward train movements in order to schedule the "meets" at passing sidings.

The Engineer is responsible for the safe operation of the train, following orders given by the Dispatcher, and obeying signals provided by trackside indicators such as block signals.

The Conductor is responsible for the safety and comfort of the passengers on the train, and controls the operation of the train when it is backing up. The Conductor is also responsible for brake tests on the cars of the train, for signalling the Engineer when it is safe to start the train or when it is necessary to stop the train, as well as for the business of ticket collecting.

Needless to say, the orderly operation of even a short demonstration railroad like the Museum's two lines requires a rigid system of operating rules and right-of-way standards.

The heart of the Museum's operating system is a little orange booklet called the Rules for the Government of Operations, or Rulebook, for short. The Rulebook does for the railroad what the Rules of the Road book does for the highway system; it provides a systematic, uniform code to govern train movements over the Museum's demonstration railroad.

The 64+ page Rulebook includes everything from uniform signal interpretation, speed limits, and brake standards to proper procedures in case of illness or accident. It is literally the "bible" of the Operating Department. Because of its importance, every member engaged in railroad operations at the Museum must successfully pass a written Rules Test every two years.

In addition to the Rules Test, each operator has to take an "over the road" test every two years. This exam tests attentiveness, train handling skills, and signal interpretation. Between operator's tests, the Trainmaster, a sort of railroad traffic cop, makes periodic observations of speed limit and signal compliance by the operators.

As you can see, operating safety is of the utmost importance at IRM. Our intention is to provide an educational experience for the whole family that is completely safe. Your cooperation in insuring your family's safety by keeping children under continual observation is sincerely appreciated.

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