Transport to O’Hare: It’s a puzzle, just put the pieces together

In the bowels of Block 37, right along State Street in the center of the Loop, is a tomb for former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s dream of ultra-fast express trains to O’Hare International Airport. It’s an empty tomb. While that particular project may have been a little off-the-mark there is no reason the city should continue its struggle for better airport transit to no avail. All the pieces are there, and while City Hall is working towards making such connections a real thing, other parties aren’t carrying their weight, preventing meaningful progress. If Metra and Amtrak worked better with City agencies the true potential of transit connections can easily be achieved at O’Hare. It is truly ridiculous that there is less movement, and one has to question the role of the latter parties in restraining this.

In recent weeks, mentions of a O’Hare-to-Loop train link have started to crop up. It started with an open letter Chicago Tribune transportation reporter Jon Hilkevitch recently wrote to the new Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) President Dorval Carter, Jr. emphasizing the need to revive plans for such a service during the new president’s tenure. It came up again in the Tribune in a feature about Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s goals for his second term in office, where the O’Hare-Loop link fell under the umbrella of Emanuel’s potential legacy projects. Conveniently just days later the Mayor’s Office published a press release announcing the ground breaking of a new intermodal facility at O’Hare consolidating major parking and car rental facilities and includes an extension of the automated people mover.

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Theoretical proposals for a new station at O’Hare includes the ability to connect to multiple rail options, something possible at airports like Frankfurt Flughafen in Germany or Schipol in Amsterdam (Source: Chicago Architecture Blog)

While this project is just another step forward in Emanuel’s own perpetuating struggle to make O’Hare a better airport it also reopens the possibility of an express rail link that alludes the city. Although Daley’s proposal was truly a dream train based on Shanghai’s maglev airport link, the underlying concept is very attainable–impressively so. What eludes Emanuel and the City’s renewed efforts is a coordination amongst several agencies. Hilkevitch puts pressure on Carter and the CTA to make a future rail link reality. This is in spite of the fact the CTA is the only transit operator in the region making a concerted effort to maintain and improve connections to O’Hare. The CTA can only do so much and finding a solution shouldn’t burden just them; taking Hilkevitch’s lead its time to revive a realistic plan for better rail service to O’Hare, but don’t make the call just to the City and CTA, but now bring Metra and Amtrak into the fold.

O’hare could have a system of rail links similar to Heathrow International in London or Frankfurt-Main Flughafen in Germany–a layered system, which includes local metro, regional/commuter, intercity, and express airport trains and high-speed rail. To make this happen though planning needs to more aggressively engage all potential parties involved (every transit agency serving Chicago). How much the City can cajole Metra and Amtrak to play a part is up for debate. Certain facts should indicate that involvement of the two agencies should happen with ease. Lots of adjacent rail infrastructure is already under the control of Metra and low freight use in the area means passenger trains are at an advantage. But then again both agencies are cash strapped and Metra has given no indication that it is interested in making major service changes.

What’s a girl to do?

Metra however presents the best opportunity for vastly improved services and the onus of pressure has to be increased. The agency already fails miserably in terms of what it provides to travelers at O’Hare. Metra operates its North Central Service (NCS) along Canadian National tracks that pass just east of O’Hare with a remote stop (O’Hare Transfer) at the airport and adjacent to the intermodal facility. While the City is failing to include an improved the station as part of the current project it wouldn’t matter much, because the current service is so infrequent it would likely get little use anyhow. Metra only runs 11 trains in each direction a day (most during rush-hour) … on weekdays only! To say the least, Metra doesn’t really cut it.

Jamaica Station

The Jamaica station, located on Long Island in New York City, provides riders the opportunity to transfer between every Long Island Rail Road line, the NYC subway, and a train link to JFK airport. This is the kind of facility that would be a huge benefit to transit riders in Chicago if it were built on the Near West Side near the current Western stop. (Source: nychinatown.org)

Frankly they don’t even have to think very hard to make improvements. Two primary improvements exist: one is simply increasing service. This could also be a micro scale effort with potentially macro scale benefits making major investments more reasonable as they have broader positive impacts. Increasing service on the North Central Service means travelers have more access to the city and suburbs improving travel options for visitors and locals, something that gets lost with express options to the Loop alone. While this obviously includes getting more trains a day 7 days a week it should include a long-term effort to improve transfers between other Metra lines and the NCS, progressively bringing more people and places closer to O’Hare by train, especially where the NCS intersects with the other Metra lines in the suburbs.

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This is the interior of an Heathrow Express train in London. The interior of the cars are designed specifically to benefit air travelers who need spaces for their luggage as well as comfortable seats. (Source: Wikipedia, Heathrow Express)

The second option would ideally be done in combination with the first: running an express train from the O’Hare Transfer stop/intermodal station. Currently it takes 32 minutes to get from Union Station to O’Hare on Metra, while an express train would take less than 25 minutes. Metra could operate this in partnership with the CTA and Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) to lower operating burdens too. Meanwhile, an intermediate stop at Western on the Near West Side facilitating transfers to other Metra lines would make the service an option for residents and visitors alike and facilitate transfers to Metra outside the Loop. This could even be used as an incentive to improve connections all around. For example, a new station just east of the current one at Western would provide riders the opportunity to transfer between four Metra lines (the Milwaukee District lines, Union Pacific West, and the North Central Service) and airport trains. This is more than just Metra going above and beyond, it is designing and planning in a way that reinforces transit use by improving existing problems, while role in new services along the way.

Where Metra can play its cards to improve access within the metropolitan region, Amtrak provides the chance to connect communities further afield by train. The proposed Black Hawk service is a good place to start. The new route will run from Chicago Union Station to Rockford with a future extension to Dubuque, IA. Using the Milwaukee District West tracks between Union Station and Elgin, it passes immediately south of O’Hare. Yet despite its proximity there is no air-to-train connection under development. Granted this requires one of three things: a new station entirely, a line configuration that spurs into the existing O’Hare Metra station and out again to the mainline, or new tracks looping north of O’Hare and back south again onto the mainline.

That said, the Black Hawk service if it stopped at O’Hare would play an even better role improving transportation in the Midwest compared to at the service sans an O’Hare stop. This is especially pertinent considering the possibility for extensions into Iowa to Waterloo/Cedar Falls and north towards Madison, WI. Ideally Amtrak would have figured out the benefit of stopping at O’Hare, and by not doing so it systemically let’s a major improvement slip through the cracks.

O'Hare Rail Access

The number of and extent of rail connections at O’Hare is significant even at its most basic. (Source: Trainorders.com)

This all costs money of course and financing continues to be a major if not the major roadblock to improvements. But it would be worth it and provide huge benefits even if high initial investments were part of this. The argument active parties need to take is that by bringing as many parties into establishing better connections they can share the costs of this system or others already proposed making it that much more attainable. Even at its most expansive a massive new infrastructure network inspired by connections to O’Hare would likely cost more than $2B. Shocking at first, it is similar in price to much less beneficial projects with a much smaller breadth of beneficiaries (such as the Illiana Tollroad) though. When one considers the number of parties involved it is clear the costs would be significantly less for each involved. That $2B suddenly seems much smaller.

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This is the shelter at the O’Hare Transfer stop. It has no direct connection the the airport terminals and requires travelers to transfer to a shuttle to the automated people mover to get to the main airport campus.

Done right O’Hare has every chance of becoming as much an important multimodal transportation center as it is an important airport. And such a center would vastly improve access to the airport and its role as an international gateway to the entire region. The fact few well established plans exist to develop the kinds of intermodal connections brought up here and proposed by others is frustrating for the sheer reason that all the pieces are right there. The city is slowly beginning the process, but needs the full participation of every transit provider in the region, because they clearly all have a stake. And even though the costs may add up, taken into context they’re actually rather manageable. It’s finagling others to take part needs to happen now, because there is no reason it should be all on the City of Chicago.

One of Chicago’s great assets is its airports and rail connections. It has remained a major transportation node in the United States despite decades of change since it first emerged as such. But this can’t be sustained if the utmost connections between the different transportation networks aren’t developed and maintained. The involvement of the City, local transit agencies, and Amtrak will fuel the airport and city’s economic growth in relation to O’Hare and the growth of the agencies themselves through new passengers. It’s a puzzle with a clear end product that just isn’t being pieced together. Getting everybody to play their part is going to be the key to solving this conundrum.