More Ideas for Improving Rail Service at O’Hare Right Now

O'Hare airport CTA station problem areas
Long lines and crowding around CTA fare vending machines doesn’t impart a pleasant welcome to Chicago visitors arriving at O’Hare airport.

Last week’s Streetblog Chicago post about Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s O’Hare express train proposal struck a chord with readers, with dozens of retweets and almost 100 comments. Lots of people agreed that the existing CTA Blue Line run between the Loop and “the world’s busiest airport” is already a relatively fast, high-quality service. Many readers also concurred that an airport express would be costly to build and expensive to ride, which makes the project a bad use of taxpayer money that could be better spent improving neighborhood transit.

Few U.S. cities have a better rapid transit connection from its main airport to downtown in terms of capacity, speed, and frequency. Much of Americans’ rail access to airports is in the form of light rail with 15-minute or longer headways, and service often shuts down before the last flights of the night. In contrast, the O’Hare Branch’s headways are as short as every two to eight minutes during rush hours, and trains run 24/7. In the previous post, I listed several inexpensive, short-term strategies for improving Blue Line service for all kinds of users.

After riding the ‘L’ to and from O’Hare last week for a trip to Los Angeles – which, surprisingly, has a very useful transit system – I’ve got more ideas the CTA should immediately consider to improve rider experience and make the system more user-friendly for visitors.

Provide a staffed booth selling CTA passes

Long lines often form at the Ventra vending machines at the Blue Line’s O’Hare station. This may be partly because the machines’ user interface is confusing, or because people are aren’t sure which type of fare card or transit pass they need. Last Thursday, when I returned home from my trip, seeing the crowd at the machines brought to mind how much simpler it used to be to buy CTA passes at retail stores like Walgreens. You simply asked the cashier for the type of pass you want, handed over the cash, and the cashier gave you an already-activated pass. With Ventra it’s still simple, but there is an extra step of activating the card. 

A staffed booth advertising “1-Day Unlimited Ride Transit Passes, $10” could help reduce confusion and shorten the lines at the vending machines during peak hours. The employee would provide visitors with an unregistered Ventra card, preloaded with the 1-day pass, along with a brochure with info on the benefits of registering the card and instructions on reloading the in case the visitor decides to use transit on additional days. 

This would be in addition to any necessary software design changes that would improve the customer experience. Another tip to decrowd the vending area would be to scatter the machines into pods, like at London Heathrow.

Make it easier to board the train

After you’ve bought a ticket it’s time to enter the turnstiles and board. Here you may encounter an odd problem: some of the turnstiles are two-way, so that customers exiting the system may block you from entering. Red, “do not enter” symbols appear on these, with a similar sign above, to discourage exiting here. Sometimes the CTA sets up moveable barrier belts to direct exiting passengers to the exit-only turnstiles. The CTA could use these belts more often and experiment with floor designs that subconsciously guide exiting passengers to the right-side, exit-only turnstiles.

The CTA is planning to install Train Tracker displays at all stations in the system but, strangely, O’Hare doesn’t yet have them. In addition to letting customers know how long they’ll have to wait for the next train to depart, the displays also provide an estimate of how much time is left to board, or walk down the platform to a less-crowded car. With that advance warning, visitors won’t panic when they hear “[Ding dong] Doors are closing.”

Can you spot the sign that says which of the two trains you should board?
Spot the sign that indicates which train will depart next.

Newcomers to Chicago might not understand that the trains leaving O’Hare only go in one direction: towards downtown. They’ll hold up a customer assistant who could be helping people buy tickets. Train Tracker screens would make that more obvious than it might be now. The displays would also make it clearer which of the two trains sitting at the station customers should board next. The existing “Do Not Board” and “Next Train” signs are easy to miss. With a few Train Tracker displays before and along the platforms, the display by one train could read  “Do not board” while the screen at the other platform lists departure times, making the choice a no-brainer.

Use airport ambassadors to help visitors get around

Emanuel mentioned London’s Heathrow Express airport train as a best practice, and his new aviation commissioner Ginger Evans referred to Denver’s airport as one that “steals traffic” from O’Hare. Much of the reason why flyers avoid O’Hare is that it has consistently poor ratings for flight delays, rather than its lack of an express train. However, O’Hare also lacks lacks the helpful airport ambassadors who make things easier for visitors to cities around the country and around the world.

A London Heathrow ambassador assists an airport passenger. Photo: Omniserv

When I visited London last year, there were airport guides hovering around the transit vending machines and other parts o the terminal. One worker helped me buy an Oyster fare card and find the right bus to my destination. Many, if not all of the guides, speak a second language.

Denver has volunteers in white cowboy hats in the terminals. Phoenix SkyHarbor airport, which bills itself as “America’s Friendliest Airport,” features volunteers – often senior citizens – who assist passengers.

Helpful ambassadors like these folks in the baggage claim area and CTA station would go a long way towards making the airport more user-friendly, as well as making it easier for visitors to navigate the airport as they make their way underground and toward the station and eventually downtown.

  • BrownBrown

    I think they should also have an express train that takes you a few steps farther up the escalator. Oh, I forgot, they already experimented with that one and it didn’t work. ;)

  • While not included at launch the Ventra App’s Mobile Pay option should cut down the need to wait in line for those with NFC enabled phones.

    That said the CTA will probably have to do some marketing to make visitors aware of the app. Could be as simple as a giant billboard that says “Don’t want to wait in line? Download the Ventra app on your NFC enabled iPhone or Android to pay your fare and skip the wait today!” The “airport ambassadors” could also play a role asking people if they have an NFC phone and guiding them through the app.

    Not the perfect fix but another tool in the arsenal to combat the current/future mess.

  • Katja

    I was there on Wednesday of this week. There’s at least one train tracker at the station, I saw it. It’s on the level where the turnstiles are and tells you when the next scheduled departures are.

  • Jack

    Train Tracker also isn’t of much use, since at a terminal, all it shows is the next scheduled time for a departure, as indicated by the *. Only value would be if the line is so messed up that an arrival isn’t in the pocket in time for its departure in the other direction.

  • Jack

    The real problem is that Ventra was supposed to be an open standards system, but it isn’t. It was supposed to be open to holders of debit cards with RFID chips, but then CTA decided that was cash fare and the banks are phasing them out for the EMD chips. Here you assume that a traveler has an NFID phone plus the Ventra app. If someone travels to several cities, will they need an app for each?

  • Yes, but down on the platform, good luck figuring out where you’re meant to go. At least once I’ve followed the “next train” sign and gotten on at an open door, only to discover they had TWO TRAINS parked on that side of the platform when the one in front left and the one I was sitting in, did not.

    The “which train to board” sign then helpfully flipped to the other side of the platform, so I got out of the train I was on, walked to the VERY FRONT of the other train just in case, and reboarded.

  • Kelly Pierce

    Travelers can also purchase Ventra cards online and have them mailed to them. The card would be registered so the $5 cost of the card is available in transit fare on the card. Choose Chicago should do more in preparing travelers as well as the many published city guides. Further, conventions, trade shows and conferences should inform their attendees about purchasing ventra cards online. If travelers at the airport already have ventra cards, there would be no reason to stand in long lines. Travelers are purchasing their airline ticket through their computer. They could visit one more website in preparation of their Chicago trip.

  • Matt

    Does anyone know if they’ve replaced the station’s escalator yet that the train crashed into and destroyed? When I flew this spring it still hadn’t been fixed, over a YEAR after the crash. It gets very crowded and backed up because people have no choice but to grunt and drag their bags up the rickety wood “temporary” stairs.

  • Jack

    Yes, just make something complicated enough more complicated. Instead of waiting in line at the vending machine, wait a couple of weeks for the mail. I mentioned before that Ventra was a fraud as an open standards system, and you think tourists want to go through more hoops to appease the Ventra gods.

  • neroden

    Yeah. CASH 4EVER!