Express Train to O’Hare? We Already Have One and It’s Called The Blue Line

The Blue Line was analyzed by FiveThirtyEight to be faster than taking a taxi from O'Hare airport to downtown. Photo: Edward Kwiatkowski
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.

Building the infrastructure for the O’Hare express would be costly and complex. In addition to somehow creating new right-of-way for the trains, new platforms would be required at O’Hare and the downtown station (likely the half-finished Block 37 super station) in order to keep regular Blue Line customers from boarding the express trains.

Evans shared with the Sun-Times her far-fetched idea of building double-decker Blue Line tracks to make space for the new trains. She argued that more capacity is needed on the Blue Line in general. However, outside of rush hours, the line already has enough capacity to carry more trains.

She pointed to premium train services in London and Germany, which she said help make their airports “premier international gateways.” Notably, the the London Heathrow Express train costs $62 round trip if you don’t buy your ticket in advance and has 15-minute headways.

Previous studies suggest the O’Hare express trip would take 25 minutes or less, and cost $20 to $25. In contrast, a non-stop train ride from Amsterdam’s airport to the downtown costs less than $5 and leaves every 5-10 minutes – which sounds very similar to the Blue Line.

Instead of creating premium service, upgrade the Blue Line

Here are some ways the Chicago Department of Aviation and the CTA can improve the Blue Line’s O’Hare operations within the next two years:

  • Create more space for luggage on the trains. This could mean removing seats on some cars running during peak flight times to make room for the kind of luggage racks typically seen on airport shuttle buses.
  • Improve the signage at the O’Hare station. The current “Next Train” and “Do Not Board” signs on the platforms are easy to miss. Have you ever boarded one train with its doors open, only to be told, or come to realize, that it’s not leaving but the other train is?
  • Improve the walk from the O’Hare terminals to the ‘L’ stop. Replace dingy ceiling tiles and modernize the lighting and décor.
  • Experiment with different ways of marketing the Blue Line to travelers. Are visitors to O’Hare’s official website finding information about the CTA, in their language? How can airlines be involved in promoting the service?

One thing’s for sure: If the city is going to create express rail service to O’Hare targeted at well-heeled travelers, it shouldn’t do so with any amount of public money. Otherwise, it could become the transit equivalent of the Illiana Tollway, a taxpayer-subsidized boondoggle that would get relatively little use, which may never provide a return on investment.

  • Make all the blue line trains ten- car trains with the two extra cars limited for O’Hare and select stops only, like maybe O’Hare, Downtown and Jefferson Park.

  • It also works as a terminal stop for HSR south and east to St. Louis, Indianapolis, or Toledo.

  • Harvey Marx

    I’d like to see Jefferson Park become a major terminal/transfer point for the Blue Line, an extended Brown Line and a new crosstown line in addition to the buses and Metra. I’d also like to see it become a high-density outer-city business district like a more concentrated Uptown or a less terrible O’Hare, but the locals would hate that.

  • tooch

    making the blue line express from downtown to ORD would make the trip faster.

  • But you’d be waiting longer for the train.

  • High_n_Dry

    Exactly. The “express” line exists, it just appears to be underutilized. Unless there are capacity issues with freight. This line could get riders to O’Hare in 15 minutes from downtown. Currently it takes 30 minutes but there are four stops between Union and O’Hare.

  • Andy S

    Thanks. I agree, but I don’t see that happening. Not even a rollback to pre-2001 levels.

  • Thanks for your perspective. Of course, you can also respond to emails on most of the Blue Line. Soon you’ll be able to do that on the whole trip, once the subways get 4G service.

  • I believe I forgot to apply Hanlon’s razor to my first reply. The politicos that are promising an express line do not understand that frequency matters more than trip time over short distances, and that frequency is expensive. Even the Heathrow Airport Express train only runs every 15 minutes with nearly empty trains while serving a larger potential market.

    We cannot attract enough customers onto the trains to both make them cost effective and frequent. The Blue line and cabs will always have the competitive edge on these two fronts.

  • Joseph Rappold

    What about bringing back A/B stops to make things faster for everyone? My dad has been screaming for years that a skip stop service would improve ride times. I am not sure if this is true but it seems like an obvious answer.

  • Joseph Rappold

    Good point, I think extending the brown line down to the blue seems like a great way to start to connect things outside downtown

  • There’s a good history of skip stop services and their trade-offs here.

  • Pat

    Also, when you can bill your clients or employer for a cab right to your door, then why take the train? For a lot business travelers, that $45 cab home or to the office isn’t coming out of their pocket.

  • tooch

    yeah, i hear you. WiFi certainly wouldn’t be a game-changer by any stretch of the imagination…to sell an option like this to business travelers, you’d need to focus on speed, comfort, and convenience.

  • It has more to do with businesspeople not wanting to ride with the filthy plebes than time or cost prohibitions. They want to stay in their little bubble.

  • Anne A

    Depending on time of day, I can get a more efficient trip to/from Midway using 3 separate buses than 2 trains – and that’s not a particularly efficient trip. If we had BRT on Western running as far south as 95th, connecting to the orange line, that could be a game changer for folks coming from much of the southwest side.

  • I don’t think even an express train would be enough to take away enough market share from trips by taxi to make it break even because a taxi will still be easier to get to than the express train and there’s not a dearth of taxi options at any time of day at ORD.

    The city could probably dream up faster ways of boarding taxis, actually, and Uber/Lyft could get in on the action.

  • I forgot to mention in the article that *all* Dutch Intercity (IC) trains (including the train between downtown and the Amsterdam airport) have wifi “in de trein”.

  • Very neat! I didn’t know that Blue Line trains had luggage racks. It’s been twenty years since it opened at O’Hare, so we should try it again!

  • Not sure. O’Hare generally needs a signage makeover. For one they’re all in English.

  • From the ground level (arrivals/baggage claim) in any terminal, go down one more level to the basement and you’ll find the corridors between terminals that also lead you to the train station.

    The people mover is also going to be an inhibitor to travel time on any Metra or express train that uses the Metra tracks and stops at the O’Hare transfer station. The people mover is currently being extended to a new consolidated rental car facility across the tracks from the Metra-O’Hare transfer station. This’ll be great for Metra riders, but they’ll still be stuck with few trains and a long walk from Metra to the people mover (what looks to be about 1/3rd mile).

  • Yes. I wanted to include this in the article but it kind of merits its own story because it takes a couple of paragraphs to fully include this as part of the discussion.

    Do you think it should be a subway or elevated over the alleys or Lawrence Ave?

  • What @what_eva:disqus said is right – I’m not opposed to having such a service, but (1) the lack of ORDexpress isn’t why O’Hare sucks as an airport or why other airports are “stealing traffic”, and (2) it’s not a worthy project for public funds.

  • “There is no ‘correct’ place to put the luggage so everyone gets frustrated.”

    Yes, yes, yes.

  • That was the point of the Block 37 super station. Or at least part of the point.

  • Right now the city and the CTA have spent enough on an express train (that being the Block 37 station). We shouldn’t spend any more. Put the station up for sale and give away any ideas, plans, documents, prospectus sheets to a corporation willing to try out an express service.

    This shouldn’t be a public project because it’s not the reason why O’Hare is an “avoided” airport with crap on-time performance and two airlines that seem to want to do nothing.

  • I think the company on the train is another reason taxi trips are preferred.

    Also, let Uber/Lyft pick up from the airport.

  • Check out the Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s CrossRail proposal. It’s a good one that essentially extends the Metra Electric to O’Hare via Union Station and the Metra NCS tracks that parallel the Kennedy/Blue Line for a ways.

  • Jeremy

    Do you mean the luggage racks that ran down the center of the train over the aisle? I remember seeing those on trains, but it was an awkward move to put baggage there.

  • There used to be stacked baggage racks at the outer end (not the “driver cab” area) of each car on some runs on the blue line. I think it was in the cars with the old doors that accordioned (the ones that can’t open wide enough for wheelchairs), I forget what model-number that is.

  • what_eva

    And? Heathrow’s signs are all in English too. They have pictures for people who don’t speak English.

  • what_eva

    Exactly. An ORDexpress makes no difference to a connecting passenger, which is the kind of passenger that can be “stolen” by other airports.

    The exception to that is MDW, which can steal O&D traffic from ORD, but Ms. Evans is in charge of both of them, so she should consider any passengers moving between ORD and MDW as largely inconsequential.

    MKE steals a tiny amount of traffic from ORD, but that’s largely far north suburbanites for whom it doesn’t take much extra time to get to MKE and they choose MKE over ORD for less hassle/cheaper parking/etc. ie, yet more things completely unaffected by an ORDexpress

  • what_eva

    TSA Pre-check is getting close to pre-2001. I got randomed into the Pre-check line at MDW last week. Still the liquid nonsense and no pocketknives/multitools of course, but you don’t have to take off your shoes, you don’t have to take anything out of your bag, etc.

  • what_eva

    I’ll reject letting Uber/Lyft pick up from the airport. Our current taxi medallion system is broken, but Uber/Lyft is *not* the answer.

  • Harvey Kahler

    The City had an opportunity to build the Blue Line under to the airline terminals, I even prepared an alternative plan for the State that was not a loop or have the absurd shuttle loop. The Blue Line extension from Jefferson Park to Rosemont was designed for 70 mph; but CTA can’t seem to keep track maintained to that level, and trains can’t accelerate to 70 mph between most stations anyway. Getting running time back down to 38-40 minutes between Lake Transfer and O’Hare is not just a little over a half hour. The facing seating does not work so well for roll-on luggage with narrow CTA trains. There is the Metra North Central Service between Union Station, O’Hare, Antioch, and intermediate points that could be expanded to daily and run every half hour. The NCS takes 27 minutes non-stop and as much as 40 minutes with 5 intermediate stops between Union Station and O’Hare Transfer.

  • Dennis McClendon

    Why? What has changed? Are travelers no longer wary about petty theft in Chicago? Why would you repeat an experiment with precisely the same variables and expect a different result?

  • Harvey Kahler

    The problem with extending the Brown Line to Jefferson Park or Montrose is that it doesn’t connect to the Red Line until Belmont, a 4-mile, 12-minute detour for travel from the Far North Side and Evanston. For a couple reason, I would recommend an express subway along Lawrence as an extension of a new lakefront subway-surface line with stations at the Red Line, Metra UP North, Lincoln Sq, Kimbal and Pulaski. A new Amtrak and enhanced Metra services at Mayfair connecting with the Blue Line at Montrose should be given serious consideration; but terminating the Brown Line there is unnecessary as well as circuitous. A bus from Glenview would take too much time, and maybe that Amtrak stop should be moved farther north to Lake-Cook or Lake Forest.

  • Harvey Kahler

    If the Blue Line was extended to Loyola and Hines: still, Metra needs to do better than alternating trains and have decent connections with Pace.

  • Harvey Kahler

    In order to extend some Brown and Blue trains to O’Hare , others would have to terminate before reaching Jeff Park.

  • Harvey Kahler

    Forget about BRT and LRT, it won’t work. You need transit that doesn’t screw up the surface streets any worse than they already are. I can see the battle coming between traffic calming and BRT.

  • My guess would be that the general driving public are in favor of airport links because its the one time they when they can conceive of themselves possibly using transit.

  • It can be useful to some travelers to provide another language.

    There are some places where there should be signs but there are not. And when you get to the O’Hare station there are signs of a different style and in places where you probably don’t need them, or they compete/interfere with each other.

  • what_eva

    That’s incredibly difficult. How do you possibly decide which additional languages to put up? There’s a limit to how much you can reasonably do on overhead signage. Do you pick Spanish or Polish or Chinese because they’re widely spoken in Chicago? Or Japanese or German or any number of other languages frequently spoken by frequent travellers?

  • kclo3

    Still 1/3 mile? I thought cross-platform transfers between people mover and mainline rail would have been a given, considering it is standard practice in the East (Newark, JFK, Miami). These regions don’t seem to be bothered by “elite” service connotations either.

  • Right now, the peoplemover goes around the outside edges of the terminals, and the Blue Line station is buried at the center of that semicircle. So, no, it’s not at all simple to connect the two directly.

  • kclo3

    I’m talking about extending the people mover to Metra NCS – O’Hare Transfer, which should have been done originally. Having to transfer through a dedicated shuttle bus from the parking lots seems ludicrous. Of course, Metra’s mere 11 daily trains per direction also leave a lot to be desired, and only having one nonstop O’Hare express train — I don’t see why the business elites can’t focus on improving that, a la Union-Pearson Express.

  • tooch

    love the idea – i live in andersonville and it’s a nightmare getting to/from the airport.

  • Dan Johnson

    This is a CTA-focused post and misses the transformative power to the entire region of creating express trains on Metra tracks that connect the south side and south suburbs with the job surplus areas in and around O’Hare.

    Our transit network is second-rate at best and when a Mayor and an Aviation Commissioner (who has delivered rail projects in her career — who else has gotten FTA funds for an airport authority? No one.) is prioritizing rail access to the airport, transit advocates ought to stand up and cheer.

    We have a huge jobs-housing mismatch in our region. Metra doesn’t fill that gap well, largely because trains don’t connect the region together (all Metra trains stop downtown).

    Upgrading Metra service to O’Hare with express service downtown that can then connect to the Metra Electric or the Metra Rock Island is a game-changer. Express trains as part of that service — especially for those who are willing to pay premium fares for direct service from O’Hare to McCormick Place — is a great way to get it built.

  • Neil Amar

    I think the train is necessary, a world class city needs this in the 21st century. Regardless of how well O’Hare performs, the fact of the matter is that it will continue to see the passenger numbers it does due to American and United’s hub operations. As much as the direct Metra service from O’Hare to McCormick would be great, you’d need the cooperation of the Canadian National, Union Pacific and BNSF railroads to develop that service, very unlikely via that routing. That being said, until there is enough public outcry about vehicular traffic, diversifying mass transit can’t even begin to be discussed!

  • I will not stand up and cheer when the purpose of the project is so utterly divorced from the realities of what a new train can do. Regional transit connectivity, especially through the loop is an incredibly urgent priority, not a hand-me-down that doesn’t make the first press release.

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