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.


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:

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.


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:

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.


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.



Improving American Rail, pt. 6: Building out better regional rail

High-speed rail (HSR) is glitzy and glamorous. There is no question that it has captured the public’s imagination to an extent. It is a commendable accomplishment to see such a serious discussion revolving around the development of modern and competitive rail infrastructure. However, if the final goal are trains akin to those famous ones in France, Japan, and now China then the first infrastructure developments have to be, out of necessity for the survival of the whole system, significantly more functional and less glamorous: it’ll have to be regional rail.  Stations are important, organizational structure is important, but a functional regional rail system is the glue keeping the whole thing together.

Like I have mentioned in a pervious article, the whole process begins by breaking up Amtrak and keeping only limited oversight, funding, and coordinating powers in a national body out of Washington, D.C. (or another city). The major powers to operate and maintain the system would be handed over to regional systems: New England and the Mid-Atlantic (i.e. the Northeast Corridor), the Midwest, the South, Texas and Southern Plains, the Great Plains, the Mountain States, California and the Southwest, and the Pacific Northwest. Such a system would look much more like Europe, where national rail operators run autonomous systems with high levels of coordination and partnership through the EU and other trans-European entities helping to coordinate trans-national projects and services. This would be where DC still plays a role.


This is the map I featured in the original post. Regions are outlines in black, high-speed rail routes (150-200 plus mph) are in red, major intercity routes are in orange, and trans-national routes are in blue. Canadian high-speed routes are in pink.

At a more localized level, each of these regional rail services could be further partitioned into operating districts organized around either a major urban center or cluster of smaller cities. Each of these could in fact be further subdivided into smaller districts that are even more localized, or used to coordinate how regional and intercity services work in relation to urban rail and transportation services. From a superficial perspective it does appear like a number of unnecessary layers and operating organizations, but the whole purpose of layered operations is to ensure a level of coordination wherein transfers between modes is actually convenient.


The green circle shows everything within 200 miles of Chicago (approx. 3 hour drive). Image from

Take a region like the Northeast Illinois and Southeast Wisconsin. At no point are any of the three major cities more than about 2 hours from each other by car. Travel between Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago is frequent and done for a variety of reasons and considering their close proximity if the infrastructure was available could be done without ever having to step in a car. But it isn’t there.

Issues have arisen in developing better connections including funding, planning, political bottlenecks and so on. One of the benefits of having a larger entity coordinating funding and services above the local level, but outside of the direct control of states and their own political turmoil, is the potential to orchestrate the development of service types with broad mutually beneficial outcomes. While commuter rail does a good job of shuttling people between the suburbs of a city into the urban core and intercity rail or high-speed rail adequately moves people from city center to city center, there is nothing in between. That in between stage though is necessary for the success of other modes of transportation and making sure people can live car-free to a greater extent.

Regional Rail from Chicago

What would regional rail out of Chicago look like? Multiple lines could theoretically radiate from the Chicago connecting numerous cities and towns within 150-175 miles of Chicago. At major cities like Milwaukee or Madison passengers from smaller cities can use the regional system to connect with HSR lines and long-distant intercity lines. Regional Rail is shown in RED, long-distance intercity rail is in GREEN, high-speed rail is in BLUE.

This type of system is necessary to support other options: transit use begets more transit use. While subways and LTR are great in cities and HSR remains an ideal option for connecting the centers of major cities regional rail systems necessarily weave these all together. While HSR passengers might use urban rail upon arrival, not all travelers are going point-to-point just between major city centers. This middle ground rail option is what connects smaller points in between to the larger nodes where transfers between multiple options are possible. Such systems have the potential to be huge boons to maintain economies and bringing new investment to areas struggling like Michigan while also supporting newly prosperous areas like the string of cities in the central part of North Carolina.

North Carolina Regional Rail

This image shows the three major metropolitan regions in North Carolina and one in Virginia, all of which would benefit from the connectivity that results form a strong regional rail system.

By no means should regional rail options be viewed as a half-assed approach to high-speed rail nor a competitor for dollars. Although I don’t believe many people view it that way, I do think people misconstrue the role and purpose of different kinds of rail operations. There an honest recognition of the role of different service types needs to be maintained. The concept of regional rail is to connect people within already interconnected regions and act as a middle ground between local and urban transportation options and long-distance/intercity options. This is why I’ve only provided examples of regions where end-to-end trips could reasonably be made in less than 2-2.5 hours at speeds somewhere between 80-100 mph. The distance between endpoints is thus limited to about 175 miles, which is fine. Anything longer might run the risk of becoming an inconvenient hybrid of regional and intercity rail (more on intercity rail later).

Putting a renewed focus on regional rail systems–the “in between system”–is the best next step in advancing the passenger rail in the United States. Regional rail is the keystone of a strong multi-modal and equitable intercity transit system, because a regional rail system achieves many things the other modes don’t: it services smaller communities and even cities that would otherwise be passed with HSR or even a traditional long-distance intercity train, they can travel at speeds competitive with cars (80-100 mph), while not requiring the same costly infrastructure investment as HSR, and regional rail can double as commuter rail for communities outside the normal reach of commuter rail or where none exists or could be supported in isolation. But, it stills serves more than the express purpose of getting commuters in and out of a city center.

The best tool to connect cities, people, and transportation options in a more complete web regionalized rail systems that bring equitable transit further from city centers and complements urban rail options and long-distance trains, whether conventional intercity trains or HSR. Without a strong regional rail system other transportation options fail by virtue of existing in a vacuum disassociated with each other.


WisARP/MHSR Association Meeting

A reserved sense of optimism was the prevailing feeling at the Milwaukee meeting of the Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers (WisARP) and the Midwest High-speed Rail Association last Saturday. The meeting gave a small albeit revealing insight into the politics and plans for passenger transportation in the Midwest. With clearly displayed feelings of bitterness, resentment, and in spite of cautious optimism it was easy to think that improving passenger rail in the region remains a nearly hopeless endeavor. However, there is also certainly reason to think that we’ve only reached a brief period of resistance to consistently forward momentum to reinvent the rail networks that was once the backbone of America’s transportation infrastructure.

Participants heard about and discussed the status of passenger rail in the state of Wisconsin, the status of Milwaukee’s fledgling streetcar network, and proposed improvements to the Chicago-Milwaukee passenger rail corridor. Other speakers included transportation journalist Don Phillips, who currently writes for Trains Magazine and formerly wrote for the Washington Post. DePaul University professor Joe Schwieterman also gave a brief introduction to his new book “Terminal Town“, a history of Chicago’s long relationship with transportation. While the presentations themselves were not always exceptionally revealing (most of the information is already available online), the overall process shows extensive work ahead and an obvious need for the transportation planning community to push harder on few things: 1) put more pressure on government to respond positively to transportation planning efforts and get the responsive politicians in office 2) more public engagement is absolutely necessary as there is a clear lack of public understanding about how transportation can function in a socially and economically as well as environmentally beneficial way.

There was definitely some bad at the meeting. The first speaker was the Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb. His hour-long presentation and Q&A revolved around the status of passenger rail transportation in Wisconsin. At the moment, only three passenger rail services are available: two are from Amtrak, the Hiawatha between Chicago and Milwaukee and the once daily Empire Builder, which connects Chicago with the Twin Cities and on to Seattle via Milwaukee and LaCrosse. The third is Metra’s UP-North service between Chicago and Kenosha. According to Gottlieb, the priority of the State of Wisconsin is to invest in existing services and includes only short-term and intermediate-term plans for passenger rail. Although there are existing long-range plans and proposals to bring true high-speed trains to Wisconsin (that is >150mph) and connecting Madison, Eau Claire, and Green Bay to the existing passenger routes there was little to no evidence that WiscDOT has any intention of moving forward with these in the near future.

The only concrete projects Gottlieb capably discussed were a proposal to add 3 additional round trip trains on the Hiawatha. Two would be semi-express calling only at Chicago Union Station, Gen. Mitchell Airport, and Milwaukee. He also mentioned a potential addition of one more daily round-trip between the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, and Chicago using Empire Builder infrastructure. While it is hard to fault Gottlieb and WiscDOT on efforts to improve and expand existing service there is no excuse for the blatant antipathy for create a solid long-range plan that includes streetcars in Madison and Milwaukee, high-speed service on a Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison-Twin Cities route, regional service from Milwaukee to Green Bay, and commuter routes between Madison and Milwaukee and Milwaukee to Kenosha. When pressed about why WiscDOT is pushing for more highway infrastructure he cited a need to help ease the pressure on the system and a need to–wait for it–plan for the future. When asked why not ease pressure on the road systems by investing in rail transportation he struggled to find an answer. Indeed, he tried to use autonomous vehicles as reason to invest in roads. He blustered when the fallacy of that argument was pointed out as it is not drivers that necessarily cause traffic, but the number of vehicles on the road and he was additionally reminded that transportation planning is about more than traffic, but also about environmental, social, and economic sustainability.

MHSRA Poster

The following speakers, journalist Don Phillips and Milwaukee Alderman Bob Bauman, gave somewhat pessimistic accounts of the state of Amtrak and transportation politics nationally and locally. While what they had to say was not universal the gist of it was that 1) we cannot trust Amtrak to carry through with its duty to maintain and improve passenger rail in the US and 2) opposition to public transportation has become almost religiously ideological to the point that any effort to improve it is fought tooth and nail. The former remarks are based on what Phillips had to say about his work on Amtrak and its President Joe Boardman in particular. Phillips remarks revealed disappointment and frustration in the management of the country’s passenger rail service. He had little trust in the organization and certainly doesn’t seem overly confident in its future. Strong management is what Amtrak needs and has needed for much too long now, according to Phillips. The latter comments came from Bauman in a 40 minute presentation about that status of Milwaukee’s streetcar. The plan, which for the most part was ready to go years ago was subsequently derailed by opposition from conservative politicians in Wisconsin including Gov. Scott Walker. This is what Bauman described as a stringent ideological opposition to any transportation projects that included rail in some regard. As he put it, a century of laws and precedent designed to help infrastructure be built was abandoned to stop the Milwaukee streetcar and this project alone.

After this, the sense of discontentment had grown. The presentations by the Midwest High-speed Rail Association did good work of improving the feeling that real work is being done to improve passenger rail in the US. They presented realistic goals for the future of rail and high-speed rail in particular. Plans to incrementally develop things like passing tracks, parallel freight and passenger lines, grade-separation, and stations are all underway in different places. There remains confusion about what these types of systems will look like however: some audience members were concerned that the emphasis on rail-air connections to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Some proposed using high-speed rail as a reason to make Milwaukee’s Gen. Mitchell Airport a more important international hub, regardless of how unrealistic that is based on the realities at hand. Others couldn’t understand why anybody would want to go from downtown Milwaukee to downtown Madison. That comment was representative where opposition of rail has been strong: places like Waukesha and Jefferson County, Milwaukee’s suburbs. Apparently, the systems wasn’t sold as something that would eventually go to the Twin Cities, which is somehow more appealing than a direct rail link between Wisconsin’s largest urban areas.

A stronger communications strategy is needed to positively push this work forward with the public. Conceptually, the ideas are there. The big and bold thinkers are there. The hope, the examples, the financing schemes are all there. At this point, the biggest problem is going to be selling these ideas to the public.Organizations like MHSRA or WisARP need to develop ways to preach not to their own choirs, but the public.Organizations like MHSRA or WisARP need to develop ways to preach not to their own choirs, but the public.

The pressure politicians, municipalities, and private groups feel to increase investment in multi-modal transportation infrastructure needs to come from a broader base than it does now. The likes of freight companies, environmentalists, proponents of smart urban growth, business people, and the traveling public all have a stake in things like improved passenger rail.  They need to create solid proposals for systems that will serve the needs of as many people possible. Strong recognizable, charismatic, and passionate faces need to be put on this project. Honestly, the issue needs some sex appeal. It’s now time to really think about making the big sell. Without public support and awareness this is all for nothing.

More than ever it is about making the public care–really care.