Chicago absolutely needs CrossRail

Chicago absolutely needs CrossRail. The city in its ambition to be taken more seriously at the international level needs a direct, express rail connection between O’Hare, Union Station, and the South Side. Chicago would be miles ahead of other American cities if such a system were built. In fact, the only comparable system being built at the moment is the Union Pearson Express in Toronto. This connection would put the city on par with places like London; Johannesburg, South Africa; or Oslo, Norway. In a recent column in the Chicago Red Eye, transit columnist Tracy Swartz pondered the need to build such a system. Perhaps a good intentioned effort at playing devil’s advocate, the fact of the matter is Chicago needs CrossRail.

CrossRail Chicago is a campaign, modeled on a project in London of the same name, to build a high-speed, high-quality rail link between Chicago’s Union Station, O’Hare International Airport, the South Side, and McCormack Place running uninterrupted through the city. The project is proposed by the Midwest High-speed Rail Association. Although it is neither part of the Go To 2040 or Transit Future campaign, the project is part of a larger melange of ideas that organizations have presented in the past few years to improve the transit and logistics infrastructure in the city and across the region.

CrossRail Chicago Map

This map shows the CrossRail Chicago project being discussed. It is technically phase one of a much larger effort to bring high-speed rail to the Midwest.

In her consideration of the need for CrossRail Chicago plan, Swartz refers back to former CTA President Ron Huberman’s track improvement program along the Blue Line and his desire to get trains to travel upwards of 70 mph. This is considered a potential alternative to the Midwest HSR plan and one with more widespread and positive outcomes for the Northwest Side of Chicago. Nobody could really challenge how fantastic it would be to see trains on the CTA traveling at speeds 15 mph more than they do (or should) now. This is great thinking on her part, but is also highly unrealistic thinking though. The spacing of stations along any CTA ‘L’ is simply to small to allow for such speeds to be reached, and if possible it would occur for such brief periods as to provide little benefit in the long run. The argument presented in the Red Eye at its root misunderstands the long-term reasoning for CrossRail and really just undercuts the whole effort.

Superficially, CrossRail Chicago would be a service competitive with the CTA’s Blue Line ‘L’ and taxis for passengers traveling between the Loop and O’Hare, and it would be quite competitive to say the least. People arriving at O’Hare now seeking to get into the city via public transit options can choose between the Blue Line and taxis. Taxis cost upwards of $50; while the Blue Line costs $5 for a one-way trip from O’Hare ($2.25 from all other stops) it takes roughly 40 minutes to get into the Loop. Even after the four-year Your New Blue modernization project is done a Blue Line trip calls at all stops and will still take roughly 30 minutes. The express trains along the route proposed for CrossRail would be approximately 20 minutes (perhaps even less) in new trains outfitted specifically for travelers between the Loop and the airport. If it is modeled anything like the Heathrow Express in London, which runs from Paddington Station to Heathrow Airport in 15-20 minutes, riders will pay a premium, but for premium service.

It would certainly help make Chicago a more attractive place to hold conventions, but also help make it a more attractive city for multi-national businesses. The importance of comfortable and convenient international travel shouldn’t be underestimated: in a world where cities, not nations, are competing with each other for influence, the city can’t cut short on positive infrastructure projects. Civic institutions, cultural institutions, infrastructure, and business are all important to the health of a city. Projects like CrossRail build into this combination.

Deutsche Bahn high-speed trains arrive at the spacious and modern Flughafen Bahnhof connecting practically the entire country to one airport.

Deutsche Bahn high-speed trains arrive at the spacious and modern Flughafen Bahnhof connecting practically the entire country to one airport.

And let’s not forget that it would make for much more comfortable rides for everybody too. No longer would travelers have to compete for space with commuters on the ‘L’, nor would commuters have to contend with luggage crammed on cars badly equipped for that. Travelers could then make much easier connections to commuter trains headed south and intercity trains and busses. It not only provides a high-quality option for travelers, but improves alternatives too: the program would require a new station which would likely improve the connections to the airport for people using Metra and the CTA or regional busses.

Most importantly, the project is a major albeit small piece in a larger puzzle aimed at bringing high-speed trains to the Midwest. This is really the impetus behind the whole project; the project really comes down to making sure trains can get into and out of Chicago’s Union Station as easily as possible. This would make Chicago not just comparable to London, but also Frankfurt, which is essentially the airport to all of Germany. The high-speed rail connections available mean air passengers can easily board a train in any part of Germany and get off right at the nation’s primary airport and Lufthansa hub. Chicago could become that for the Midwest. In fact, this would offer travelers even more alternatives. High-speed trains could replace short connecting flights from cities like Madison to Chicago and make travel easier at busy times of year or during inclement weather… which Chicago and the Midwest gets plenty of.

This is the point that is most important to take home about the CrossRail plan. Yes, Swartz makes a good argument for looking into better financing the already existing rail infrastructure in Chicago. The problem is that this is done by questioning the validity of another highly valuable project, one that has the best potential to be a successful public-private partnership; also, it doesn’t address the real issue of underfunded coffers for municipal services, the paper trails to which all ultimately end on LaSalle Street or in Springfield. Projects like this shouldn’t be seen as the problem, rather government ineptitude should get that blame.

The CrossRail proposal on the localized scale in Chicago gets much of its strength by recognizing the city’s importance as a global transportation, business, and convention hub. It builds and expands on that in a way that is trying to position the city’s infrastructure planning thats secures the city’s place in what its good at, hopefully to grow from there. These are the things that should get broad support even when they are just ideas being thrown around.

So, if you were thinking let’s just invest in the Blue Line a whole lot after reading the Red Eye critique remember CrossRail shouldn’t be seen as a hindrance to other projects, but complement it… Chicago needs CrossRail.