The Blue Line was analyzed by FiveThirtyEight to be faster than taking a taxi from O’Hare airport to downtown. Photo: Edward Kwiatkowski
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and recently appointed aviation commissioner Ginger Evans have been calling for new, faster, premium train service from O’Hare to downtown in a bid to improve the airport’s standing among its domestic and international peers. They argue that the airport is causing the city to lose business. However, while O’Hare is a low-performing facility, the existing Blue Line service isn’t the airport’s limiting factor.
The idea of high-speed rail service to O’Hare is nothing new. Under former mayor Richard M. Daley, the CTA spent over $250 million to build a “super station” under Block 37 in the Loop for that purpose. Ultimately, the proposal went nowhere, and the empty station space currently sits unused, a monument to poor urban planning.
High-speed train service to airports – with fares that typically run several times the non-express rate – is becoming a emoree common amenity among busy, international airports. However, express service that runs directly to the center of town is uncommon. Chicago is unusual in that both O’Hare and Midway offer efficient train service to the Loop. According to the Blue Line’s schedule, it takes 38 minutes to travel from O’Hare to the Clark/Lake station, a respectable pace that’s often faster than driving.
Throwing more money at the O’Hare express idea that could otherwise be used for improving or expanding existing transit service is a bad idea. There are much more cost-effective ways that current O’Hare Branch ‘L’ service could be upgraded. Moreover, the CTA should work on improving travel times to the airport from many of Chicago’s densest neighborhoods that aren’t near the Blue Line.
The O’Hare express proposal has been endorsed by Tribune transportation writer and aviation buff Jon Hilkevitch, who recently referred to the Blue Line “old and slow”. While age doesn’t necessarily make a train line sluggish, deferred maintenance does. However, the CTA is currently in the midst of the $492 million Your New Blue project, which is rehabbing seven stations and removing slow zones from Grand to the airport. The agency estimates these upgrades will shave five minutes off the trip from downtown to O’Hare.
Despite the fact that a trip to the airport will soon take little more than a half hour, Evans recently told the Sun-Times that a premium train line to the airport is “essential infrastructure” because other peer cities have one. However, she also told the Tribune that other cities’ airports are “stealing traffic” from Chicago because O’Hare has many flight operations problems that put the airport at or near the bottom of on-time rankings, so perhaps premium train service shouldn’t be her top priority.
The Blue Line is already a competitive train service
As of April 24, 2015 [PDF], only 3.3 percent of the O’Hare Branch tracks were under slow zone restrictions, in which trains are limited to 35 mph. Some of the branch’s tracks are already in good enough shape to allow for speeds greater than the CTA’s systemwide speed limit of 55 mph, and all of its train cars are capable of traveling 70 mph. One reason for the current speed limit is that faster speeds would result in more wear-and-tear on the tracks and wheels, thus higher maintenance costs.
The Blue Line is already a great alternative to taking a taxi. FiveThirtyEight analyzed travel times between airports and central business districts in major cities and found that only in Chicago, Minneapolis, and Honolulu was it faster to take transit than a cab.
On weekdays, trains run between Clark/Lake and O’Hare every 2 to 8 minutes during rush hours, with ten-minute headways during non-peak times. Airport express trains in other cities typically have 15-to-30-minute headways. Waiting longer to catch a premium train to or from O’Hare might nullify any advantage from the higher speed.
The express would be an expensive project with limited benefits
The current push to create “world-class” train service to O’Hare is a distraction from actually fixing what’s wrong with Chicago’s transit system. In a recent Sun-Times op-ed, public policy consultant and former mayoral candidate Dr. Amara Enyia argued that spending money to create a premium train line would be a case of skewed priorities. Rather, she argued, the focus should be on improving transit for Chicago residents. “Maintaining our streets continues to be a challenge that affects transit time, quality, and safety,” she said, adding that CTA service cuts have made it more difficult for residents to access jobs.