The End of the Line: The Problems of Building an Express Train to O’Hare

The north end of the James R. Thompson Center in downtown Chicago contains a maze of escalators and stairways, filled with passengers hurriedly hauling suitcases behind them. They make their way down to the subway platform, and if a train happens to be waiting, they scramble to get inside before the doors slide shut. Once aboard, travelers hold on as the train car screeches forward. A familiar voice can be heard above the din: “This is a Blue Line train to O’Hare. Thank you for riding the CTA.” Clark/Lake, the station these passengers have just left behind, is the second busiest in the entire network of CTA rapid transit stations. This is not surprising: it is a central hub for passengers transferring from the elevated Orange, Pink, Brown, and Green Line trains to the O’Hare branch of the Blue Line. The station can sometimes resemble an airport concourse with all the travelers headed to catch their flights. Thanks to this direct connection between O’Hare International Airport and downtown, Chicago is one of only three US cities where public transit to the airport is faster on average than taxi services.

For Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, this isn’t good enough. Emanuel recently commissioned a basic engineering and costs study for express rail service between O’Hare International Airport and downtown. The train service would be operated by private investors, creating a new transit system separate from both the Chicago Transit Authority and Metra commuter rail. Emanuel, whose proposal targets primarily business travelers, promises that such a train would give Chicago “world-class” prestige. Proponents also believe the express train would provide a quiet work environment for businessmen that the Blue Line does not. The express train would connect the two locations with a travel time of twenty to twenty-five minutes, about fifteen minutes faster than existing service by the Blue Line, which makes fifteen stops between the airport and the Loop. The project would require building new rail corridors or upgrading existing track, as well as the construction of new terminus stations.

In the best case scenario, the express train would justify this effort and prove dramatically more convenient than existing transit options. Many Chicago mayors have dreamed of bringing high-speed rail to the city; however, previous attempts—most recently by Richard M. Daley, Emanuel’s predecessor—failed due to poor planning. Emanuel’s plan is also idealistic, and critics quickly tried to slam the brakes on the project. These critics point out that an express train may fail to improve upon existing service to O’Hare and may not attract enough passengers to make construction worthwhile. With rough unofficial cost estimates already hitting at least $1 billion, any limited funds that could be scrounged up for the express train might be better spent on more useful mass transit projects. A quick glance at the facts demonstrates that while the train might fulfill its supporters’ hopes under a best-case scenario, it’s more likely to confirm its critics’ fears.  

One of Emanuel’s primary selling points for the express train is that it would save time for business passengers in a rush to catch their flights. While Emanuel’s office projects a twenty to twenty-five minute run time for the express train, the CTA Blue line takes thirty-nine minutes to travel from O’Hare to Clark/Lake, assuming the train runs on time. In practice, delays can lengthen the trip further. However, this travel time has fallen in recent years thanks to down-to-earth investments in transportation. Mayor Daley first proposed running express trains between O’Hare and Midway Airport in 2005. Back then, this plan would have made more sense: by December 11, 2007, track conditions on the Blue Line had deteriorated to a point that 67.3 percent of the O’Hare branch had been placed under slow zone restrictions of 35 mph or slower. But since then, the CTA has spent years making repairs on the O’Hare branch; at the end of last year, only 1.3 percent of the track was designated a slow zone, enabling trains to run at their normal speed of 55 mph the rest of the way.

While business travelers may still arrive at O’Hare fifteen minutes sooner than they would on the Blue Line, the logistics of getting to and from the express line could erase this advantage. The Mayor’s office has already ruled out bringing the train directly into the Loop because of the maze of CTA lines that already serve the area, and has also ruled out running the express train on the Blue Line’s current tracks. Since the Blue Line runs on just two tracks and the portions of the route in the densely populated urban core of Chicago have no room for constructing bypasses, any “express” train on the Blue Line would be stuck behind local trains making stops at each of the Blue Line’s fifteen stations between O’Hare and downtown. Instead, the city wants to work with other existing rail tracks, and place the terminus of the express line outside of the Loop, on either the West or North side.

Assuming the city wants to minimize construction costs, they will have to stick to their plan of using existing rail tracks—the basic engineering and costs study may answer whether such tracks can be used in their current condition or must be upgraded to allow trains to run at higher speeds. Assuming the city also wants to minimize travel times, they will have to choose a direct route with as few detours as possible. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s map of rail lines in the Chicago area shows only a few lines that meet these two constraints, all of which currently carry Metra commuter rail. Metra lines typically have three tracks instead of two, making it possible for trains to bypass one another if necessary. The southernmost route is the Milwaukee District West Metra line, which runs close to Grand Avenue in a west-northwesterly direction from downtown toward the southern edge of O’Hare. In Franklin Park, it is possible to transfer from Milwaukee District West to the North Central Service, which runs northward closer to the airport to the O’Hare Transfer Station. The Union-Pacific Northwest Metra line, which runs northwest from downtown along the Kennedy expressway, was highlighted as a possible option by the Mayor’s office, but never approaches closer than two miles to the northernmost edge of O’Hare Airport.

All of the Metra tracks suffer from a significant disadvantage that the Blue Line does not: while the Blue Line is directly underneath O’Hare’s Terminal 2, Metra’s O’Hare Transfer Station is more than 1.5 miles from the airport’s terminals. From the Metra Transfer station, a passenger would have to transfer from the train to an airport shuttle bus, and then transfer again from the bus to the airport’s own elevated people mover, the Airport Transportation System (which is not operated by the CTA) to get between the terminals. Unless the shuttle buses and people movers are perfectly synchronized to the arrival of an express train, travelers would end up wasting the time they saved traveling on the first leg of the trip waiting at two separate transfer stations. On the other hand, the CTA Blue Line runs directly into the heart of O’Hare Airport, with a walkway between the station and Terminal 2.

It might be possible to reap the benefits of both the Blue Line’s direct connection to O’Hare and Metra’s train bypass capabilities. The rail tracks of the North Central Service cross the Blue Line on an overpass just outside of the airport. Building a ramp connecting the two would achieve both benefits, but could increase construction costs significantly.

There is another disadvantage to using Metra tracks: from downtown to O’Hare, the Milwaukee District West–North Central Service routing has thirteen at-grade intersections (which this correspondent counted using Google Maps) between the tracks and surface roads. Fourteen railroad crossings is not an ideal situation for an express train. The CTA Blue Line O’Hare branch, meanwhile, has none.

Besides the logistical problems of running an express service between O’Hare and downtown, the mayor has proposed ticket prices that would dissuade most prospective passengers. Mayor Emanuel’s office estimated that that fares would run between $30 and $35. This is far higher than any current public transport options leaving O’Hare: the Blue Line fare is $5, and the North Central Service fare from O’Hare Transfer station to Union Station in the West Loop is $5.75. The express train’s premium fare also exceeds many comparable transit lines from airports. At New York City’s John F. Kennedy International, traveling from JFK to Manhattan via the AirTrain and MTA subway costs $7.50. A trip from San Francisco Airport to Montgomery Street in the heart of San Francisco costs $8.95. Toronto’s Union Pearson Express, connecting the city’s downtown to its main airport, was once near the upper end of transit fares, costing $27.50 CAD (about $20 USD) for a one-way trip. However, Union Pearson is struggling to attract passengers and is currently losing money. The train’s operator has caved to pressure to lower fares, which will be $9 CAD (about $7 USD) starting this week. London’s Heathrow Express is a rare exception where high ticket prices did not doom the project: it charges £17 (about $24 USD) for a one-way trip, but boards sixteen thousand travelers each day, and sustained a profit last year. Nevertheless, the service does offer discounts for booking in advance and weekend travel. If the O’Hare express train is unable to turn a profit with fares below $30, the train may be headed straight toward deep financial trouble. Emanuel’s train relies partially on private investors, who will only sink money into a project if it has a good chance of becoming profitable.

However, proponents can argue that Emanuel’s express train does have an opening to attract passengers. Data on travel statistics to O’Hare International Airport is scarce and outdated, but the most recent publically available data, collected from studies performed in 2004, shows that most O’Hare passengers do not currently take public transit. According to the 2004 data, only 12 percent of travelers between O’Hare and downtown chose the Blue Line; Metra ridership was negligible. The most popular option was travel by taxi, which 33 percent of travelers opted for, followed by a hotel or airport van service at 13 percent. Car travel and the Blue Line trailed both these options at 12 percent each. Since then, ridesharing has probably cut into the proportion of taxi riders. A January 2004 study concluded that Blue Line served mainly airport employees, and the proportion of actual O’Hare passengers on the Blue Line was no more than 20 percent. Therefore, most O’Hare passengers currently do not use public transit to get to the airport. The taxi, van, and car customers are the ones Emanuel must somehow win over if the express train is to succeed. In the Blue Line’s defense, ridership at the airport station has increased by 48 percent from January 2004 to December 2015, so its popularity with fliers may have grown over the last decade.

Planners must figure out why O’Hare passengers largely avoid public transit. If the answer is that they are headed for areas other than downtown, the express train is out of luck. Chicago is very spread out compared to other cities, and with major business complexes scattered around the North Side, Evanston, and western suburbs such as Schaumburg, the express train would serve only the small portion of business travelers going to the Loop. Connections are possible between the North Side and the Loop, but significant transfer times would negate any advantage the express train has over a taxi.

In a worst case scenario, the O’Hare express becomes a vampire project, diverting millions of dollars from maintaining regional public transit, but failing to survive to see the light of day. After all, the current plan is for the City of Chicago to contribute funds for building the stations while luring private investors to buy and maintain trainsets and ultimately run the service. If investors are unwilling to shoulder the risk, but the city goes ahead and builds stations anyway, as happened with the $400 million wasted upon the still unfinished Block 37 station at Randolph and State, the project would have squandered funds that could have financed more urgent renovations. We could see the deterioration of CTA and Metra tracks to the point where pervasive slow zones discourage commuters from riding existing services and the Kennedy Expressway becomes jammed with even more cars. Rahm Emanuel’s express train has its appeals. With impeccable planning and just the right set of circumstances, it could be successful. Unfortunately, past history comes down on the side of the cynics.

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