Chicago Is Seriously Considering Elon Musk’s “Electric Sled” Fantasy for the O’Hare Express

The future of airport transit? Musk says he can easily dig a new tunnel to O'Hare and whisk travelers there at 125 mph via "electric sled" propulsion. Image: Jonathan Roth
The future of airport transit? Musk says he can easily dig a new tunnel to O'Hare and whisk travelers there at 125 mph via "electric sled" propulsion. Image: Jonathan Roth

[The Chicago Reader publishes a weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. We syndicate the column on Streetsblog after it comes out online.]

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s scheme to create expensive express rail service to O’Hare for elites has always been a dubious proposition. Involving tech mogul Elon Musk and his fantasy of digging a new tunnel to the airport for high-speed “electric sled” travel, as the Emanuel administration recently expressed interest in doing, would almost certainly make the project worse.

Establishing an O’Hare express train has long been a bee in the bonnet of Emanuel and his predecessor Richard M. Daley, who squandered about $250 million building a “superstation,” which now sits abandoned under the Loop’s Block 37, to accommodate the planned service. In 2015 Emanuel and his aviation commissioner Ginger Evans announced that building the nonstop rail route is a top priority for the administration, arguing that it would ease congestion on the Kennedy, create jobs, and generate tax revenue.

Evans has projected that an O’Hare express trip would likely take about 20 or 25 minutes, compared to the current 40 to 45 minutes on the Blue Line (which could be shortened by up to five minutes by the CTA’s in-progress “Your New Blue” renovation project.) She estimated that the premium tickets will cost between $25 to $35—many times more than the current $2.25 el fare to the airport and $5 return ticket.

Last year the city awarded a $2 million contract to the engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff to identify potential routes, station locations, and a cost estimate. A 2006 CTA business plan estimated the price tag at $1.5 billion. The Emanuel administration has said its goal is to avoid spending public money on the project, which would almost exclusively serve affluent people and business travelers, but it hasn’t ruled out the possibility.

Detractors have argued that the O’Hare express plan is a case of misplaced priorities and a recipe for financial disaster. Urban planner Daniel Kay Hertz noted that a similar premium service in Toronto initially saw little use (ridership increased after fares were slashed from about U.S. $20 to roughly $9). Hertz added that due to longer waits between trains, and the likely West Loop terminal location, Chicago’s express might not be much more convenient for visitors than the Blue Line. The Active Transportation Alliance says it won’t support the project unless there’s a guarantee that no taxpayer money will be used, and argues that the city should instead be focusing on improving transit access in Chicago’s neighborhoods.

A model of one of the passenger vehicles Musk says he would use for the O'Hare express. Image: The Boring Company
A model of one of the passenger vehicles Musk says he would use for the O’Hare express. Image: The Boring Company

The O’Hare express controversy took a turn for the weird late last month with news that Elon Musk, of Tesla electric car and SpaceX rocket fame, may get involved. Crain’s Greg Hinz reported that Emanuel’s staff is in talks with the 46-year-old entrepreneur about using his much-ballyhooed but largely hypothetical proprietary tunneling technology to dig a route from the Loop to the airport. The entrepreneur claims that the new tube would accommodate miniature shuttles that could zoom across the northwest side at 125 mph.

Musk knows Emanuel from the mayor’s days as Barack Obama’s chief of staff (Obama toured Musk’s Falcon 9 rocket launch site in 2010) and the businessman has donated a total of $55,300 to Emanuel’s election campaigns, according to campaign finance records. After catching wind of the O’Hare project, the tech magnate offered the services of his new excavation business with the winking name the Boring Company. He claims his technology will speed up the digging process 14-fold over conventional methods and cut costs by up to 90 percent.

The mogul says he could run small passenger vehicles—renderings suggest each one could accommodate about a dozen people—through the tunnel using so-called “electric sled” technology. The cars would depart the airport as soon as they’re full, perhaps more frequently than Blue Line trains. This new system, he claims, could pave the way for using another theoretical Musk technology, the Hyperloop, a scheme to use vacuum-sealed tunnels to propel vehicles at more than 600 mph.

Last month Chicago deputy mayor Steve Koch traveled to Los Angeles to discuss the O’Hare tunnel idea with Musk, and it sounds like the administration is taking this laughable idea seriously. “It was fascinating, really interesting,” he told Crain’s. “We’re going to try to see if they can make it work here. It depends on the cost, but I’m as intrigued as I’ve been [with anything] for a while.” He added that he expects the Boring Company will respond to Chicago’s upcoming request for proposals for the new airport line.

It’s foolish for the Emanuel administration to seriously consider Musk’s harebrained idea. Moreover, it’s a potentially wasteful distraction from real solutions to our city’s transportation challenges, namely better el and bus service.

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Musk seems to have started the Boring Company on a whim less than eight months ago. (He first tweeted out his idea of digging tunnels to bypass congestion in December 2016 while stuck in a Los Angeles traffic jam.) He’s since boasted that he will dig a passageway from LAX airport to Santa Monica that will shorten the trip to five minutes via electric sled.

But so far all Musk has done is to begin digging a 50-foot-long testing trench at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, south of LA—no permits required. Meanwhile there’s no evidence whatsoever that he’ll be able to magically decimate the cost and duration of urban excavation. Recent municipal highway tunneling projects in Boston and Seattle devolved into massively expensive and time-consuming boondoggles, which should make Chicago think twice before enlisting Musk to dig a much longer route to O’Hare.

And as Streetsblog USA’s Angie Schmitt recently pointed out, while there are no real-world examples of the purported Hyperloop vacuum-tube technology, Musk’s pipe dream is already threatening to divert public resources. The $130 million Hyperloop One startup has built a 1,640-foot test track in the desert outside of Las Vegas, but the company doesn’t yet have a vehicle to shoot through it, let alone one that’s safe for human cargo.

That hasn’t stopped numerous government agencies and organizations from lining up to promote Musk’s vacuum-tube fantasy. Hyperloop One invited local governments to take part in its “Global Challenge” to plan a coast-to-coast tunnel network, and many civic leaders traveled to Washington D.C. for the April launch party. The company has bragged that several applications for the challenge were endorsed by governors, mayors, Congressional reps, and regional planning commissions.

Hyperloop One says it can build a tube from Columbus, Ohio, to Chicago that will shorten the trip to 29 minutes. Columbus’ regional planning organization has submitted an application for the Global Challenge in which it promises to dedicate staff time to planning the corridor, as well as to help raise private capital for the project. While many groundbreaking transportation ideas, from rail travel to aviation, were first dismissed as crazy, taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be spent to pursue what’s still at this point one overconfident entrepreneur’s fever dream.

Musk says he's digging a 50-foot-long test track on the SpaceX campus. Photo: The Boring Company
Musk says he’s digging a 50-foot-long test track on the SpaceX campus. Photo: The Boring Company

Similarly, it’s a waste of resources for the Emanuel administration to devote staff time to Musk’s O’Hare tunnel proposal. After all, his claims of a superfast, supercheap tunneling method and Jetsons-esque electric sled propulsion are still merely hypothetical.

In addition to curbing their enthusiasm for Elon Musk’s illusory O’Hare plan, Chicago officials should reconsider the airport express plan. The Blue Line is already a practical, if unsexy, way to get to O’Hare that could be made even better through further investment. A new CTA study notes that the Blue Line’s frequency and crowding issues could be addressed by expanding the line’s Forest Park rail yard so that there are more trains to work with, as well as adding higher-capacity articulated rail cars. The trip to O’Hare for air travelers could also be improved via simple changes such as better wayfinding signs and installing luggage racks in the cars.

There are lots of practical ways the city can make transportation to the airport more convenient and pleasant. Let’s not trust the solution to a guy who doesn’t seem to know a high-speed transit tunnel from a hole in the ground.

Update 7/14/17: On Wednesday Hyperloop One made the claim that it had succesfully fully tested a full hyperloop.

  • rduke

    …all I can say is:

    UGH

  • lykorian

    I appreciate Elon Musk’s boldness and vision. However, the “O’Hare Express” concept, regardless of how it’s implemented, is bound to be a colossal waste of resources. It’s stunning that Emanuel is considering this a “priority” given the myriad other problems facing our city.

  • J.B.

    I see Musk has re-discovered the old Personal Rapid Transit idea. Good on him! A more worthwhile endeavor would be looking at retrofitting CTA train lines to be fully automated PRT lines than building a single-use, single-purpose, single-destination PRT.

  • Theodore Kloba

    In principle, I see nothing wrong with spending public money to develop technologies where a public benefit is only indirect: Consider the space program. But also consider that the space program was federally-funded, and happened under very different economic conditions (top federal income tax rate 70% or more, historically low income inequality).

    As far as getting to and from O’Hare, improvements to the Blue Line are of course needed, but don’t forget Metra NCS which could use service expansion. And if we have an extra couple billion, we should build a new service north and south at approximately Kenton Ave. from the Blue Line down to Midway. (Which will have a side benefit of encouraging business growth on the west side as it gains easy access to a new labor pool.)

    Too bad there aren’t enough inconvenienced billionaires heading from O’Hare to the loop to justify a price tag on a Hyperloop ticket that would subsidize transit for everyone else.

  • 1976boy

    Maybe one good thing about the project as it is proposed is that the passengers are not each in their own cars. Musk’s first idea for the LA tunnel was that it would whisk people along in their cars. At least with this there’s no long lines at the beginning and end of cars waiting to get on and off.

    That said, it seems pretty suspect as a final technology, but a clever way to get public funds for R&D. Considering this guy is a billionaire, and a supposed business genius, as are all his friends, why would Chicago pay for this?

  • Vooch

    Musk could solve his commute to LAX simply by cycling the 3 miles in 15 short minutes.

    Mobility solutions for our cities are a urban planning challenge not a technology challenge.

  • Frank Kotter

    I don’t get it. There are no fewer than four (!) currently operating train lines running from O’hare to the Ogilvy/Union Station with a total of 8 independent tracks with 4 stations ringing the immediate area. One is even called ‘O’Hare Transfer’. This existing system could easily support a solitary express line from downtown to O’hare with nothing more than overhead electrification and an on-time, safe, connection from this express to the terminals.

    It is 15 miles. If the system could mimic the speeds of other systems (MUC, ZUR, STN) the travel travel time would be between 10 and 18 minutes.

    Why are pople throwing up their arms and looking to non-existent technology at eye-popping prices when cities all over the world (not the U.S. mind you) have found solutions time and again? I truly welcome any explanation because this one baffles me.

  • ardecila

    I’m not offended by this. It sounds like Musk’s idea will be just one of several proposals that the private sector will submit in response to the city’s RFP. Musk’s proposal is just getting all the press because it’s flashy. Other proposals may use conventional rail. It remains to be seen which will make the most financial sense.

    I don’t doubt Musk’s claims to cut the cost of tunneling, both by reducing tunnel diameter and (likely) by training and managing his own workforce. Using union labor or even paying prevailing wage would likely kill his supposed cost savings, but if Musk takes taxpayer money he’ll be forced to pay prevailing wage under the Davis Bacon Act. For that reason I doubt he will seek taxpayer money for the initial construction, although he may seek a city guarantee to take over operations if they turn out to be unprofitable…

  • Exactly what percentage of traffic on the Kennedy expressway is “elites”? I am thinking its not that much. The reduction in traffic would be nominal at best.

    This is just one more “1%” BS that Rahm would rather talk about than buses, mental health care, or schools…all three have been cut by the the Northshore transplant Mayor.

    Its the absurdity of it all. Why talk about schools or mental health cuts on a transportation blog? Because all of this shit is connected, we are all connected, transportation is about being connected.

    Why or how can people get on board with an administration that even entertains crap like this (or Lucas Museum, remember that?) when we see homelessness, crime and taxes spiking?

  • Frank Kotter

    How many passengers hop in a taxi which in turn jumps on the Kennedy just to sit in traffic? A boatload. How many get to their meeting or hotel faster this way than jumping on the train? Negligible.

    There is a need here. However, reinventing the wheel is the totally backwards way to solve this very real bottleneck.

  • neroden

    It’s worth pointing out that even if all the tehcnical claims for “Hyperloop” actually work…

    (1) It’s going to be less cost-effective than a normal train, because small vehicles are less cost-effective than big, long trains. (To move the same number of people, you’re spending more money on buying steel, and moving steel, with small vehicles than with long trains.)
    (2) It’s going to be more expensive than a normal train, becuase normal trains are passively self-stabilizing thanks to the conical wheels and tracks. This is why you can run a 100-car train at high speed without jackknifing. Anything other than a train will have the jackknifing problem and will require exotic, complicated, expensive stabilization. Trains stabilize automatically.
    (3) It will accelerate and decelerate at the same speed as a normal train, because the limit to acceleration for normal trains is passenger comfort, and that isn’t going to change.
    (4) It will have the same limits on speed going around curves as normal trains, because again, the limits to these on normal trains is passenger comfort, and that isn’t going to change.
    (5) So far, everything they’ve demonstrated is both slower and more expensive to operate than a normal train.

    I’m a fan of Musk, but this is a case where he *did not do his research*. If Musk ever does his research, he’ll replace the idiot “sled” nonsense with… a train.

  • neroden

    Yeah, the need is for, uh, trains, not idiotic overcomplicated sleds.

  • neroden

    Musk’s claim to reduce tunnel diameter is simply false.

    His supposedly “smaller” tunnel is actually larger (12 feet) than the standard diameter of a London Underground tunnel (11.5 feet). You can look this up.

  • neroden

    Because some people like flashy, idiotic ideas. Like flying cars.

  • neroden

    You’re right that he’s redicscovered PRT. PRT is, of course, an appallingly terrible idea. Maybe eventually Musk will rediscover “trains”.

    The problem with PRT is, fundamentally, that’s it’s inefficient and low-capacity Hauling around a huge box of steel to carry a tiny number of people, spacing those boxes far apart for safety — it’s low-capacity, and wasteful for moving so much unnecessary steel per person.

    By contrast, run a long TRAIN on the same route, you carry a lot more people per pound of steel moved, the distance between trains is the same as the distance you need between PRT — it’s very high-capacity, and it’s very efficient for moving so little steel per person.

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