Chicago’s Plans for a High-Speed Airport Link Revived Thanks to Investor Interest

» Mayor Richard Daley hopes for a fully privately funded project connecting downtown with O’Hare Airport, but the city should be sure not to give away too much in the process.

Chicago, perhaps like no other city in the United States, has set itself apart as a center of trade, and recently that has been expressed in the growth of its two airports, O’Hare and Midway. With the resurgence of passenger rail promoted by the Obama Administration, it may be able to reassert its dominance in that field; it will sit at the confluence of three upgraded intercity rail lines already at least partially funded: One to St. Louis, another to Detroit, and a third to Milwaukee and Madison.

Now Mayor Richard Daley (D) is promoting a plan to connect the two modes of transportation via an express rail line between the Loop and O’Hare International. This is only the most recent in a long line of proposals designed to establish quick links between the airport and downtown; it is, perhaps fortunately, no more likely of success.

This week, Mr. Daley formed a 17-member exploratory committee to study options, arguing that private investors from around the world had suggested to him that they might be available to help finance the project. The Mayor promised that the municipal government would provide none of the funds for either construction of operation of the program, though he did not rule out the possibility of demanding state or federal dollars to aid in the investment. The new chair of the Regional Transportation Authority is likely on board, being a big supporter of public-private partnerships.

The previous plan for the express rail link, developed earlier this decade, would have included a “superstation” downtown also connected to the local rapid transit network where travelers could drop off bags before boarding trains. The expresses would run along upgraded Blue Line rapid transit tracks; the fast trains would use new bypass tracks to get around the slower-stopping local trains, providing a 25-minute ride between downtown and O’Hare Airport at a cost of between $15 and 20 dollars per rider. Rapid transit currently requires 40 minutes to make the trip. It is likely that any new project would follow similar principles, but the new committee has obviously yet to determine what plans it will advance. If any private investor is involved, changes are likely.

The superstation, located under the Block 37 project, has been partially constructed after a $250 million public investment. But the station is not completed and does not include track connections between the Red and Blue rapid transit lines, one of the primary goals of the project. Nor does it have the check-in facilities necessary to make the express service feasible at this time.

Mr. Daley’s impulse — to promote a new transportation project specifically without committing the public sector to financing its completion — certainly makes sense considering the city’s limited fiscal reserves and its other priorities, but it may also be unrealistic.

For one, reason puts in question the assumption that private investors would be willing to fund the capital costs of the airport line, no matter the cost customers may be asked to pay to ride along it. There are significant obstacles to putting the project into play, including the purchase of new trainsets; the construction of bypass tracks along an elevated line in dense urban neighborhoods; the expansion of an underground station downtown; and the possible need to create a new terminus station at O’Hare Airport. In other words, airport service of the type that’s been discussed before for Chicago would require several hundred million dollars — of somebody’s money.

Just as important, even if the project does move forward, Chicago has a responsibility to ensure that the new airport express service doesn’t intrude on the daily operations of Blue Line trains, which are arguably more important since they serve tens of thousands of riders a day. With bypass tracks, it would be technically possible to run both services on the same corridor, even as one is providing express operations and the other local ones. But ensuring the express nature of the airport trains without dedicated tracks for them would inevitably mean interrupting Blue Line operations. So even with a privately funded project, there is likely to be some loss in terms of efficiency for the publicly funded rapid transit service. That’s a problem.

Moreover, as Toronto’s recent difficulties with its own airport project demonstrate, investors looking to invest in infrastructure like public transportation may want continuous, year-to-year subsidies even just to pay for operations. Chicago certainly isn’t looking to commit to anything like that.

Image above: Chicago O’Hare International Airport Rail Station, from Flickr user ono-sendai (cc)

26 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Would it be useful to provide express service for local residents, making limited stops and also serving the airport?

    • Krazy19Karl

      Due to the limited window available to pass a local train, and the limited savings of the express train, I wouldn’t like to see anything more than perhaps one commuter station (Rosemont or Cumberland) included into the potential service. And these only in peak hour.

    • simple

      Alon, you are on the right track (no pun intended). The Blue Line O’Hare branch is a 45-min ride with the most balanced peak loading of all CTA lines (it’s not balanced, but it’s better then all the other lines). If new express tracks were built, they could be leveraged to also provide a limited stop option for travelers between the Rosemont-Jeff Park stations and downtown, shaving perhaps 10 min off commutes in both directions. This would be especially valuable for west and south side residents commuting to jobs in the greater O’Hare area (a long but not uncommon transit commute).

      This express/limited/local plan was actually recomnended in the 2006 study. Most of the commenters below would do well to brief themselves by reading this study — it seems that many commenters have poor background information on this proposal (especially regarding proposed track configurations, operating plans, and prior market research).

      The 2006 study can be found at:
      http://www.transitchicago.com/news/default.aspx?ArticleId=2108

      • FG

        Definitely take a look at the study, it’s quite interesting. Just wish that there were maps (unless I missed them). I’m always suspicious when I see 2016 – Chicago’s biggest recent “fiasco” (it was a half-baked underwhelming effort, I can’t believe that people were seriously shocked that we didn’t get the games) – on various improvement schemes but this seems a bit more solid on first glance.

      • It’s an interesting study, but I’m skeptical of the idea of only including nonstop downtown-airport service. Limited stop service, with cross-platform transfers at the overtake stations, is a much better way to connect O’Hare to the stations on the Blue Line. It would be less useful for airport travelers, but serve more airport workers.

        • simple

          I agree. And this was acknowledged in the study (summarized on page 7 and the lower right box on page 8; a bit more detail elsewhere in the report). The idea would be three levels of service – express/limited/local. Limiteds would serve key transfer points and stations in the job-rich areas near the airport, but not the airport itself (except perhaps at major shift change times) so as not to cannabilize the market for the premium fare express trains. Expresses would run every 15 min and limiteds in-between the expresses.

  • Krazy19Karl

    As I understand it, there would be one stretch of bypass tracks built on the blue line, adjacent to the Jefferson Park station in an expressway median. The space already exists for this. Express trains would depart O’Hare timed to be able to pass local trains at this specific point only, so if there is any delay, local trains would probably have to sit and wait for the express train to pass it.

  • laldm

    This is an extremely dumb proposal that Mayor Daley has been trying to push for several years. It didn’t work in the past and it likely won’t work now. The main problem is that there is no physical space for another rail line to O’Hare. The Blue Line (which carries 150,000 people per day and is the northwest side’s only L line) runs in the median of the Kennedy Expressway. It takes up the whole median, and the area is built up to the road on both sides. The Kennedy is 10-14 lanes and constantly congested. It seems unrealistic to do a huge construction project there. Further southeast, the Blue Line runs through densely developed, mostly affluent urban neighborhoods, inches from the adjacent buildings. Downtown, it runs in its own subway with only one track in each of two tunnels. Expansion of these segments would be even more expensive than the expressway section, requiring condemnation and underground construction.

    Even all these physical factors notwithstanding, the history of the project puts it in doubt. The Mayor forced the CTA to start building the superstation under downtown during the recent Block 37 construction. However, the project ran out of money and the CTA just built the shell of the station and blocked it off. Mayor Daley has gotten the reputation in the last five years of being sadly out of touch with the realities of his city, and most of his plans as of recent have fallen flat, most visibly the Olympic bid. I wouldn’t expect this grand plan to go anywhere either. The CTA has several other expansion projects on the boards, however, that are important and well thought-out that will improve the city’s transit system.

    • allen

      There is no room there? What if an express train followed a new route? Or what if the tracks were stacked? Since when did civil engineers loose the ability to build up or down? Or heck, why couldn’t the right of way be expanded, re-aligned, double stacked and/or tunneled?

      It can be done. The question is at what costs and if the investment is worth it.

      • The plan doesn’t call for stacked tracks – which is good, because stacked tracks are expensive and are as a rule only used when there’s no room anywhere else.

        The plan also doesn’t call for tunnels, which are even more expensive and are not justified by any ridership projections.

  • Chicago, Toronto, Montreal all plan these non-stop express trains from downtown. They will be expensive, and only shave off like 15 minutes compared to a rapid transit connection with many stations, which will serve many more people and is generally much more useful. And in Chicago, this metro connection already exists.

    Why would you put so much effort into a project with such limited appeal?

  • Andy

    There are two more realistic ways to improve service to O’Hare. One is to upgrade the current Blue Line. It needs new train cars and I believe is due to get some from a recent 400-car contract. But pretty much every line needs new cars, so the ones under contract could be used for another line and new cars could be purchased with more airport-friendly features (e.g., overhead racks for luggage). Then the CTA could bring back the partial express service they used to run, with A & B trains making every other stop. This could shave 5-10 minutes off the trip downtown perhaps.

    Another way to speed up travel times, and to better integrate O’Hare with the upgraded intercity trains that will be coming into Union Station, would be to ramp up service along the Metra North Central line. There is already 31 minute service 11 times daily from Union Station to the O’Hare transfer station (where you then have to take a bus to the terminal but it could theoretically be rerouted near the airport). Investment in this line would improve intercity transfers to O’Hare, as no rapid transit line comes into Union Station.

    Either of these alternatives would require public funds that Chicago and Illinois don’t have right now. But both of them would offer better service than we have with the current Blue Line, and both would be accessible to every day people and not just wealthy business travelers.

  • The whole “Airport Express” idea came into being when when Empor… Mayor Daley made a trip to some SE Asian
    cities with such operations, and decided Chicago HAD to have one.

    Since CTA is an extension of (and staffed by) City Hall; CTA’s Planning Dept. had to come up with the “Airport Express”
    proposal submitted to it, or be replaced by Planning Dept. staff that would (no matter how far-fetched or impossible utilizing
    existing 19th Century 2 track Blue Line infrastructure).

    Sort of like “The Emporer’s New Clothes”

    Anyone who has ever lived in Chicago and used the ‘L’ for any period of time KNOWS that the CTA could never possibly
    maintain the JNR or DB type scheduling precision required for interlaced express and local services.
    It would only take 2 or 3 times of express riders missing their plane because of wino trouble on a local train, before NOBODY
    would trust the express services.

    IMHO, any AEx service with a chance of being successful should forgo any use of the Blue Line (Block 37 Superstation
    recycled into something useful); and use existing Metra rails (or a new construction in Metra’s ROW).

    This would utilize Union Station downtown, and a new E/W rail tunnel alignment at O’Hare to directly serve the existing
    (and new Western) Terminals (with provision to connect to any future HSR through services).

    Something to attract the eyes of the world, many tourists (and serve local residents too) would be a triangle Maglev system
    connecting the Loop, O’Hare, and Midway (this also could have provision to connect to future long-distance services):

    O’Hare to Loop – Along the Kennedy Expy. and UP NW ROW (stop/junction at Jefferson Park w/non-stop bypasses)

    Jefferson Park to Midway – Along Belt Line ROW 2 blocks east of Cicero Ave. (stop/junction/bypasses at new West Center Station
    at Lake St./Green Line/UP West)

    Loop to Midway – Along UP West ROW via West Center Station.

    If a way can be found for foreign investors to improve Chicago’s transit infrastructure, I think we should go for it.

    HOWEVER, there are still also large parts of Chicago with NO CTA Rapid Transit service for it’s residents,
    and I think THAT should be prioritized over creating a luxury rail service to O’Hare which has TWO
    (Metra and CTA) rail services already.

  • Andrew

    I do not agree at all with this fad of building pricey, high-speed rail links from airports to downtown, and generally do not use them when a good alternative is available.

    - Airport express services provide only a small amount of time savings for a much higher price. It is not worth paying $15-$20 instead of $2.25 to save 15 minutes in this Chicago example.
    - They often leave you far from your final destination, whereas local services often connect better with your final destination. For instance, the Heathrow Express terminates in Paddington, whereas the Piccadilly line serves a much larger area of Central London. Similarly, this Chicago rail link will probably only have one stop in downtown Chicago.
    - Many airport passengers are not going downtown. An airport-to-downtown rail link is of little or no use to most of them. Connections to destinations other than downtown are important to attract passengers to transit.
    - Airport express services require costly dedicated tracks to avoid interfering with local trains. In Chicago, without fully dedicated tracks, the airport express will reduce the capacity of the Blue Line.

    For cities contemplating building a new airport rail link, it makes far more sense for it to be part of a regular local transit line with frequent stops, similar to Vancouver (the Canada Line), rather than a dedicated airport-only express line. Furthermore, rail connections to areas other than downtown need to be seriously considered if possible, e.g. a connection to Brampton in the case of the proposed Toronto airport rail link.

  • There are two Metra lines that flank O’Hare’s edges – the logical way to offer express airport service would be to use that infrastructure. Build a new station at O’Hare, connect it up to the Metra tracks, and you’ve got instant express service to downtown. You can then add whatever check-in facilities you’d need at Union Station.

  • NoBama2012

    What? Delays in the “windy” city? Never in the winter time! Better raise that $20 per ride to $40 and slowly decrease that regular commuter service to the people.
    That way developers/investors in Block 37 can get their return on their political investment! or better yet, just create another “stimulus” package & give the city the money. Or even BETTER YET….run the train to the O’bama International,Peotone, airport to connect both airports !!!

  • Mike Friedman

    I have to agree with the others and say this is a stupid waste of money. Why would anyone pay 10x the fare for a savings of 15 minutes? The ride to O’Hare is a little long on the Blue LIne, but I agree with the commenter who suggested that re-instituting A/B service would decrease times without the huge expense.

    If they want to spend new money, it would be far better to spend it on improving the Metra line and providing a direct connection to O’Hare from there (obviously replacing the bus shuttle, everyone hates changing modes).

    This is the same problem with Oakland Airport’s stupid and super expensive BART connector. Why would anyone pay $7 EXTRA to get from the station to the airport (which begs the question of why BART wasn’t routed to Oakland Airport in 1968 when it was being designed) when the current bus (while annoying) is $3.

  • matt

    1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Begging_the_question

    2. Airport connectors are great if the cost is relatively low and the alternatives are poor. But too often the current situation does not justify an upgrade. Oakland and Chicago fall in to this category. That money would better be spent somewhere else. Denver and LA perhaps could work an improved airport connection.

  • Sean

    I hate it when pea-brained TeaBaggers pollute message boards with their mindless word vomit.

    NoBama2012- go play in traffic.

  • art hackett

    Keep in mind that Amtrak already goes from the loop to a shuttle terminal near Gen. Mitchell airport in Milwaukee in about the same time as it takes to get to O’Hare. It’s uncertain if the proposed High Speed Rail line to Milwaukee and Madison will also hit that stop.
    Granted Milwaukee has no where near as many flights as O’Hare, but it has room to add and could siphon traffic from O’Hare (It’s clear it already does as it’s closer, even by car, from the northern Chicago suburbs

  • FG

    I think the basic idea of an airport express is good – people would pay for fewer stops, nicer cars (soft seats, carpet, perhaps checked luggage), but maybe in the range of $15 not $25. But the logistics seem way too complicated here (adding passing tracks or a third track, though many of the old el lines were triple tracked for express services at one time).

    Perhaps I’ve understood incorrectly, but I gathered that the people mover system at O’Hare which serves the remote parking lots could be extended to the Metra station, which would really improve access to the airport with improved train service from downtown and the NW suburbs.

  • OceanRailroader

    I wounder how is this thing going to effect the eletric Metra lines that are with in 20 to 30 miles of it. Do they plan to add a extension to the existing catenary system to change the oil powered locomtives to go into this thing?

  • Would it be useful to provide transportation service for local residents, making limited stops and also serving the airport?

  • Anandakos

    Wait a minute. I think someone is hand-waiving here. This is not a “high speed airport link”, at least not as the phrase is currently used to describe service by HST to a major airport.

    That’s what is implied by “[I]t will sit at the confluence of three upgraded intercity rail lines already at least partially funded: One to St. Louis, another to Detroit, and a third to Milwaukee and Madison.”

    This is express trains running on heavy rail lines.

    Now that’s all well and good. Most business fliers originating or terminating in the Loop won’t take the Blue Line. They’ll choose a cab or limo because they’re quicker, but this might be attractive.

    But it’s hardly “linkage” to the HST system, which operates out of Union Station. People who read this blog would be excited to jump on a train in Springfield, zip to Union, hump our bags to this new Retail Valhalla, zing out the Blue Line to O’Hare, hump our bags quite a little way to the terminal and check-in.

    However, I expect most of the good burghers of Springfield are going to forsake the whooshing and zinging and just take a shuttle up I-55.

    If you want to have HS train service to the airport, build and HS connection to the airport, not this too little by half compromise. The Milwaukee division of Metra skirts the south side of the airport and dives DIRECTLY into Union Station.

    That seems like a preferable route for an HST link.

    Now if the point is to link the center of the Loop to the airport at high speeds, then the Blue Line expresses are a better choice. But they can’t be considered “extending high speed rail to O’Hare”.

  • Which was both of those appealing also as insightful!
    Thanks for sharing your views with us.

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