‘L’, L, el (Chicago trains)

The official abbreviated name of the Chicago elevated train system is the ‘L’—two single quotation marks around a capital L. By official we mean that this is how the Chicago Transit Authority writes it in all official public documents. In Chicago news publications, it is variously written ‘L’, “L”, and L but never El, and this is generally the case in other publications writing about the Chicago trains.

Though there are other cities with elevated trains, Chicago is the only city where the entire train system is referred to by this term (even though parts of the Chicago ‘L’ are under ground). We searched for a number of phrases such as “New York el train” and “Boston L train” (since the New York subway and the Boston T have plenty of elevated portions) and found very few instances of el train and L train in reference to anything but the Chicago trains. The main exception is in Philadelphia, where at least one train line is referred to as the El train.


Chicago-based news organizations and websites usually ‘L’, “L”, or L–for example:

Police arrested a man minutes after he snatched an iPad from a woman on an “L” train. [Chicago Tribune]

A no-nonsense, cigar-chomping World War II vet with a stentorian voice that sounded like Charlton Heston on the Mount — if Heston had grown up riding the L. [Chicago Sun-Times]

A crowd of students pushes down Fullerton Avenue towards the “L.” [The DePaulia]

They compared the project to their agency’s work to eliminate slow zones on the ‘L’. [Grid Chicago]

3 thoughts on “‘L’, L, el (Chicago trains)”

  1. Typo: organizaitons

    This debate is a fun one. CTA, as the operator of the ‘L’, can call it what the system what it wants. It’s a longstanding name, too, with lots of evidence of ‘L’ usage before the CTA’s inception in the 1940s, and “el” is short for elevated while the CTA trains are a mixture of elevated, subway, and surface.

  2. I lived in Chicago for 30 years (born there). It was always a question of, “Do you want to take the subway or the L?” We distinguished between the underground and the aerial. Both take you to-da-loop.

  3. According to my deceased father, who grew up in Chicago in the early part of the 1900s, the Loop is all of Chicago inside the original L, which formed a loop around the downtown area. My understanding is at that time, the transportation system was primarily “the elevated,” a term which eventually encompassed all Chicago public transportation.


Leave a Comment