High Speed Rail Association: Use Metra Tracks for O’Hare Express

map of CrossRail (condensed)
CrossRail would improve Mayor Emanuel’s initiative to run express trains to O’Hare airport by using Metra – not CTA – infrastructure, and bringing upgrades Metra sorely needs.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and aviation commissioner Ginger Evans stated earlier this year that creating an express train to O’Hare Airport is a priority for this administration. However, the Blue Line is already a fairly speedy way to get to the airport, which could easily be upgraded via a few short-term improvements. Therefore, the city might be wiser to invest in neighborhood transit projects, rather than creating a premium service for well-heeled travelers.

Evans floated the rather fanciful idea of double-decking the Blue Line to create right-of-way for the express trains. However, if the O’Hare Express is going to happen, the Midwest High Speed Rail Association believes it should use the existing Metra infrastructure that’s located in the same airport-bound transportation corridor as the Blue Line and the Kennedy Expressway.

I recently sat down with executive director Rick Harnish to discuss MHSRA’s proposal for “CrossRail,” a package of Metra rail improvements that they say would increase the commuter rail system’s reliability and create rider-friendly service patterns. The plan calls for linking the Metra Electric tracks with Union Station, by way of a new flyover and river crossing at 16th Street. Harnish said CrossRail would make faster trips to O’Hare possible by upgrading ancient infrastructure that Metra is already trying to replace, as well as adding new elements.

Whether Blue Line or Metra tracks are used for the O’Hare express, the project would cost about the same, Harnish said. He estimates that CrossRail would cost $2.2 billion, and says he’s heard that a CTA solution would cost over $2 billion.” A business plan for the airport express created for the CTA in 2006 [PDF] estimated that a Blue Line-parallel service with separate tracks would cost $1.5 billion.

Building tracks above the Blue Line, as Evans suggested this summer, would probably cost even more – assuming it would actually be possible to do so. “[That] comment from Evans about double-decking was either just completely off the cuff, or she was basically saying, if you want to pay for it, there’s an engineering solution for it.”

Investing in upgrades for an O’Hare express on Metra tracks could address the commuter rail service’s existing needs. They want to upgrade track switches – the A2 switch dates back to 1932 – within Chicago that delay trains, and eliminate dangerous at-grade road crossings near the airport.

And, since CrossRail would connect the Union Station lines with the Metra Electric, which serves the South Side and south suburbs, there would be a wide base of political support for the investment. In other words, unlike a Blue Line-based O’Hare express service, CrossRail wouldn’t just be a project for affluent people traveling between the airport and the Loop. CrossRail is also proposing that the O’Hare-bound train could stop at Ashland near Union Park.

Ideally, CrossRail becomes part of a new high-speed train line that the state has been planning, starting at O’Hare and continuing through Champaign and Springfield, terminating in St. Louis.

Building a new train station at O’Hare’s Terminal 5 with high-speed service to Union Station – which serves multiple Metra and bus routes, as well as Amtrak – should attract the support of lawmakers in Springfield. After all, the service would be convenient for downstaters and University of Illinois students who ride Amtrak into Chicago in order to fly from O’Hare.

CrossRail would also make it easier for Metra to provide shorter headways on more lines. Currently, only the Electric branches offer ‘L’ train-like frequency.

While Emanuel has made billions of dollars of upgrades to the CTA since he took office in 2011, he hasn’t spearheaded any improvements to the commuter rail system. So, other than creating the O’Hare express, why would he be interested in helping to make CrossRail happen?

“Metra has a huge untapped and unmet potential to serve the city,” Harnish responded. On the South Side and Far Northwest Side, Metra fills in the large geographic gaps between CTA train lines. However, except for on the Electric branches, service is extremely infrequent.

Metra fills in a lot of gaps in the CTA rail network on Chicago's South Side. This map shows all of the Metra lines without freight traffic or with low freight traffic – freight makes it harder for Metra to run frequent service. CrossRail would link some of these lines through Union Station to O'Hare airport. Map: Sandy Johnston
Metra fills in a lot of gaps in the CTA rail network on Chicago’s South Side. This map shows all of the Metra lines without freight traffic or with low freight traffic – freight makes it harder for Metra to run frequent service. CrossRail would link some of these lines through Union Station to O’Hare airport. Map: Sandy Johnston

“Another benefit of CrossRail is that it causes people to look differently at Metra,” Harnish said. He added that the relationship between Metra and the city of Chicago is changing because of new chairman Martin Oberman, a North Side resident.

The next step for moving forward with CrossRail is for the Illinois Department of Transportation to conduct what Harnish called “an investment grade analysis,” a ridership study sturdy enough win the confidence of banks and investors. The Illinois Senate has already passed a resolution that urges IDOT to do just that, and the Illinois House is considering a similar resolution. Although IDOT tends to focus on their next highway project, Harnish said rail should be part of their normal planning operations.

According to the House’s draft resolution, an IDOT study from 2013 found that a high-speed rail line connecting Springfield and Champaign to Chicago’s Union Station and O’Hare would require no annual subsidy and would actually generate an operating surplus.

The CrossRail plan has one other edge over a CTA-based O’Hare express train, Harnish said. It would bring conventioneers straight from the airport to the McCormick Place Convention Center.

Updated to correct that trains would stop at a new Ashland/Kinzie station, not at the existing Clybourn station. 

  • Alon Levy

    Remember how a few months ago I said, re Cuomo’s harebrained LGA express, that the correct response is not “let’s do it this way instead” but “no”? This is exactly what I was talking about.

    A reasonable person looking at the Metra lines would probably conclude that the most important lines to modernize and through-run are Metra Electric and the UP system, especially UP-North: Metra Electric provides service to the South Side that the L doesn’t, and UP-North parallels the busiest L branches. However, because this discussion is happening on Rahm’s terms of “must serve O’Hare,” the circulating plan connects Metra Electric to North Central Service, the lowest-ridership Metra line heading into Chicago from the north. Note how the map does not depict Metra Electric connecting to NCS in addition to several more important Metra lines, either the UP system or the Milwaukee District system; it exclusively depicts an NCS connection to the north, while to the south there’s a connection to both Metra Electric and Rock Island on the local trains.

  • Metra could do a lot with frequent service to move a lot of people in ways that impact economics for the entire city.

    But first they have to show any institutional will at all to be something besides a unidirectional, suburbs-to-loop rush hour weekday service. Offering half-hour or shorter headways on weekends would be a good start, and help replace car trips for suburbanites to the Museum Campus (etc), as well as encouraging citydwellers to recreate in the suburbs.

  • Mcass777

    What if the 616 trail been connected to the blue line instead? The central super station could have been used, the train could stop up to Milwaukee/Damen and then run to the Rosemont station where the ATS could be extended…
    Actually thenats could be extend to the Rosemont station now

  • Sandy Johnston

    The CrossRail proposal *does* show a connection to the MD-W line, it just doesn’t go further than Franklin Park, which is fine, seeing as the density really lessens west of there. And connecting to MD-N is meh; it doesn’t really hit too much useful inside city limits, and the suburban areas are not very dense. Obviously connecting to the UP lines would be a top priority, but it would require an additional degree of difficulty; you’d need to at the very least take Cassidy Tire and reconstruct the old Navy Pier branch connecting up to the main. So I understand prioritizing this system as Phase I and leaving the other lines as Phase II.

  • I don’t go south like I did in college. But if I did I bet I would want a simple platform change like the Orange and Red at Roosevelt. But instead a simple platform change somewhere from say the Red to a frequent Gray/Gold running on the south side lakefront tracks. But perhaps the best would be a through running el from Howard to Hyde Park and beyond. I assume that someday there will be a line of high-rises, a la Sheridan Road in Edgewater, along the south lakeshore. Probably the only reason such is not being built right now is that there is not a decent single transit line connecting the north lakefront with the south lakefront.

  • No one proposed using the Bloomingdale Trail as a transit line. The consensus was that a park should be built.

  • That’s because the map is focused on highlighting CrossRail’s advantage of solving the ORD express “problem” without going into too much detail about all of CrossRail’s benefits.

    Another map (attached) shows how the CrossRail package includes two new flyovers, one at the A2 junction which affects five Metra lines.

  • Mcass777

    I know, but it represented direct access to the Metra system from the CTA inner loop rail system. Kind of like what the CTA did with the orange line, using a mix of existing rail beds to connect the city to Midway. A flyover (like on the brown/red line) at Bloomingdale would have been simple but expensive to develop the whole line. I guess the park was a consensus because there was no option to a rail to trail project

  • Brian Sheehan

    There is a pedway connection between Lake on the Red Line Millennium Station that can keep folks out of the elements, and that seems as much of a walk as the Orange-Red connection. Expanding hours on this section of the pedway would be needed to make this work, though.

    Not sure if ME and ‘L’ platform heights match up well, but if a theoretical Grey/Gold came into service, IMO extending it up a re-done LSD to Wilson would be better, as many of the high-rises on the immediate lakefront have a bit of a trek to the nearest Red/Brown Line station.

  • planetshwoop

    First, I expect putting Amtrak at O’Hare would be a huge win for regional rail. You could drive a lot more traffic from the hinterland if you could take Amtrak from Madison / Rockford / downstate Illinois than from the city.

    Second, re: Metra Electric and frequency of service. I wonder if the cost for increasing metra service is labor or capital. I know for the Star Line they wanted to run DMU trains which would seem like an easy way to increase service on many of their routes. (I know there are weird regulations about DMUs that prevent wider use.)

  • That’s the thing about parks and trails though, converted FROM railroads: they can just as easily go back to being railroads. I’ve never actually seen it done, though.

    The whole project cost $100 million, the price of *two* CTA stations.

  • Matt F

    I grew up in River Grove — this train line is going nowhere as long as freight lines are on those tracks. Prepare for express trains with 2 hour delays.

  • BlueFairlane

    That depends on the station, doesn’t it? Isn’t the 95th Street Red Line station supposed to run something like $250 million?

    (And yes … I know this is beside the point.)

  • Sandy Johnston

    Direct transfer from the L to a regional rail system is kind of the Holy Grail of making Chicago transit better. It’s really hard though. I once proposed (https://itineranturbanist.wordpress.com/2014/07/07/an-ambitious-plan-for-regional-rail-in-downtown-chicago/) a tunnel from Millennium Station to link up with the North Side commuter lines via a superstation at Clark/Lake, and I still think that’s the way to go in the super long run. Shorter-term, an infill CrossRail station on the St. Charles Air Line could both serve the South Loop and provide a transfer to the Red, Green, and Orange Lines. The L lines would need infill stops too, and it’s not far from Roosevelt, so it’s not an ideal solution, but it’s something.

  • kclo3

    Forgive my ignorance, but why was the IC or South Shore line not connected to the Loop like what Insull did with the North Shore Line?

  • The Morgan and Cermak stations were each less than $50 million and neither required the massive viaduct rebuilding or pedestrian bridge that 95th has.

  • david vartanoff

    Metra Electric, when built (1926) was designed for rapid transit headways. The issues today are operating costs and additional equipment. See http://www.grayline.20m.com/ for a discussion of exploiting the underused assets. The physical ROW south of McCormick Place has space for 8 tracks as far as Kensington.

  • Michael

    The 95th Terminal project would cost millions less if it weren’t for the 200k+ cars that past under it each day.

  • BlueFairlane

    Which makes you think that maybe they should have built it a couple of hundred feet to one side.

  • Kevin M

    Re: “CrossRail is also proposing that the O’Hare-bound train could stop at the Clybourn station between Wicker Park and Lincoln Park.”

    I’m not sure about this. I think CrossRail proposes using the Milwaukee District mainline to O’Hare (via MD-N). That mainline does not access the Clybourn station (which is on the UP mainline).

  • Michael

    well sure, that would have been a better idea, but i think the bridges work well. its the rebuilding and maintenance that is difficult with traffic.

  • I’d like the idea a significant rebuild of the green line along 63rd or diverting up to the University of Chicago so that it through-runs with the South Chicago branch and runs out to Midway. Interconnections at the Red line would be a must.

  • FG

    The IC was heavy rail originally (and still is) and it’s main station was Central Station at Roosevelt Road. By the time it was electrified in the early 20’s it likely would have been impossible (or expensive) to connect in addition to different histories.

  • FG

    As someone else pointed out, until freight is moved elsewhere, either completely removed or right of way’s divided, i.e. separate freight and Metra tracks, additional frequency (or at least a huge increase in frequency) on most of Metra’s lines will not happen. I don’t see electrification of Metra’s diesel routes coming, realistically, in the mid-term future as it would require rebuilding the platforms (with freight being removed first to allow the clearance for high-level platforms) and all new electric infrastructure. I suspect that kind of frequency would also require totally rebuilding the current terminals, probably with a total replacement with underground tunnels for through-routing – the current number of through tunnels won’t cut it for that kind of service.

    I’m all for dreaming big, but at the same time we should be pushing harder for achievable improvements in our current system, i.e. increased frequency on Metra lines where possible, getting the current system into a good state of repair and replacing 50 plus year old equipment. I think that the O’Hare express is a good mid-term goal – but with Rahm’s big tax increase just to pay pensions coming I’m surprised he’s really worried about this. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s high priority with legislators right now either – House Majority Leader Currie would love more evening service on MED but isn’t really pushing for it from what I can tell.

  • kclo3

    How different were the loading gauges than on the North Shore Line? What stopped them from just adding third rail shoes like the North Shore?

  • FG

    I don’t know why specifically the South Shore didn’t connect somewhere to the el like the north shore did – probably there was little need for it to connect north. I’m guessing because they were able to get access to the electrified IC ROW and the loop/south side el were close to capacity anyways. The IC only ran commuter service because they already owned the tracks and ran heavyweight rail cars which would have been too heavy for the el structure – it’s my understanding they were forced by the city to electrify due to complaints from Hyde Park. The North Shore and South Shore used different rolling stock afaik from the start. Plus the IC stations downtown are already pretty convenient to the loop as it is so connecting to the el wouldn’t have been that much of an advantage.

  • The I.C.RR (now Metra Electric) is a Class I Railroad just like freight trains and Amtrak, it’s trains are 10′ wide and have strict FRA Compliance Requirements that must be met. South Shore Line trains are the same.

    CTA ‘L’ trains (and North Shore and C&AE trains were) are 8.5′ wide, and could NOT operate in common (on the same tracks) with Class I rail equipment. Implementing the CTA Gray Line Project would provide a new CTA ‘L’ service on the South Side/South Lakefront to augment any new direct O’Hare service: http://bit.ly/GrayLineInfo

    Since the South Shore is replacing its older single-level Electric cars: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yc50TRno_aE with new Bi-level Shoreliners: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QsLM5Yq9A2I

    The single-level South Shore cars, after replacement, and connected to a Metra diesel, could tow the Loco on the Electric District, fit easily through the Low Clearances on the St. Charles Air Line, and passing through CUS. And the Loco could pull/push the cars when not under MED Catenary, on the way to O’Hare!

    So we already have the basic rail equipment and track connections to initiate such a service!

  • david vartanoff

    We had that Holy Grail at La Salle St before the real station was wrecked. You could walk from the track level to the fare control level of the La Salle/Van Buren station of the Loop in a covered walkway. There was a walkway at Northwestern Station (Ogilvie) to a Station on the Lake St L.

  • al_langevin

    The Blue Line is still the best option for express service to O’Hare. You don’t need double-decker trains or other silly ideas, you simple need clean non-smelly trains that express from downtown and do not stop anywhere from the loop to O’Hare. They’ve had the Yellow Line sitting for months now, why didn’t they try using those?

    The high-speed rail proposals are all boondoggles designed to get us to pay for high-speed rail. It’s all fantasy as Chicago is filled with freight traffic and Metra is incapable of handling any kind of problems.

  • Having non-stop trains sharing tracks with stopping Blue Line trains has been shown to *not really work*, even with passing tracks. The schedules would have to be so precise for each kind of train, and that’s now how the CTA runs its rapid transit lines.

  • You can’t run a nonstop service to O’Hare on the existing Blue Line tracks without sitting and waiting behind local trains, because there isn’t a third express track available, or any room to build one, for most of the length.

  • The map shows a stop at Ashland which I quickly (misread) as “Ashland/Clybourn”. It looks like the stop would be at 400 N Ashland. I’ve updated the text.

  • FG

    Why would the NICTD want to do that, in addition to O’Hare service being way out of their mandate as an Indiana organization? Towing a heavy diesel engine would be a huge drag on speed (if, indeed, they could even tow something that heavy) and waste of electricity. Plus moving the terminal would inconvenience the commuters who need to go to the loop.

    And none of this will happen until freight is moved elsewhere…

  • We are having some misunderstandings! I mean purchasing the cars from NICTD as new Bi-levels come on line, the alternative is to construct expensive brand new rail equipment to provide the service, like in Toronto:

    I was an Locomotive Engineer on the C&NW in the 70’s; true a Loco is heavy, but not that much to tow when it is cut out, and the use of electricity while on the MED would eliminate any Lakefront air pollution.

    What terminal are you talking about moving? The South Shore itself would continue to run into Millennium Station; I am talking about using purchased EX-South Shore cars (no longer being used in their services) to provide the O’Hare Service.

    And with a Loco in the consists, the service could be started much sooner on existing facilities; and further system electrification could wait until later.

  • FG

    Superliners already use the St. Charles Air Line so I don’t think bi-level height is an issue. I also don’t get the impression that the single-level South Shore cars are being taken out of service. They (NICTD) wanted additional cars and they got a better deal on modified MED style cars rather than a special order of single-level cars since it could piggyback onto Metra’s order. I only see their bilevels at rush hour when they need extra capacity. In other words, it was a one time order and is fulfilled.

  • The Superliners don’t have pantographs on top adding to their overall height like the Highliners, or Shoreliners do.

    I don’t think there is enough clearance under the Green/Orange Line ‘L’ to add Catenary to the Airline, or some of the tracks at CUS. Do you think they should create all-new equipment for such a service, like Toronto?

  • FG

    Quite frankly, none of this is going to happen, so it’s academic to ask. If frequencies increase enough and electrification is in the cards and that kind of construction is in the works (new connections and lines) single-level cars with multiple doors will be needed, more along the lines of Metro North’s new equipment since the single highliner doors won’t cut it – too much dwell time at Union. By the time this happens all of Metra’s equipment will be beyond the end of it’s lifespan and will need replacement anyhow. And something more luxurious will be needed for a “premium” express service to O’Hare anyways.

  • david vartanoff

    Actually if we wanted to run on ME or even say from Hegewisch, the diesel need only be added at 23rd for heading over the St Charles Air Line.

  • R.A. Stewart

    I didn’t realize there was another station there before. I had occasion to take a train out of LaSalle St. a couple of weeks ago and was kind of appalled. What a dismal place, and there were probably speakeasies during Prohibition that were easier to find.

  • For the frequency that express trains would need to run to be viable, coupled with existing Blue line frequencies, you would need not one, but at least two dedicated tracks for express service.

  • Freight isn’t the sole reason not having increased service, although on certain lines like the BNSF, HC, UP-W, SWS it is. But there is very little freight on the UP-N,UP-NW, MD-N, MD-W and RID. The obstacle on these lines is twofold – lack of capacity at the downtown terminals, and the outlying yards, and at several key choke points and lack of spare equipment. All of which could be overcome if Metra decided to re-examine its business model of primarily focusing on the “traditional” suburb-to-city commute and suburban mindset in which trains operate almost express in the city and then hit up every suburban station.

  • david vartanoff

    The design of the the F the commuters station was a travesty. A decent design would have retained a real station fronting on Van Buren, but at the time $$ were at stake and the commuters lost.

  • FG

    It’s not Metra who would need to reexamine their charter or mandate but the state and local municipalities who would need to make that decision and provide the push to make that change. That would require voters/citizens to push their legislators towards that goal.

  • That is an alternative, but it would require making/breaking the consists at 23rd, a good chance for something to go wrong and tie-up the system.

  • Thanks for the excellent coverage.

  • grover5995

    An alternate route for O’Hare Express could run south of CUS to Halsted St on the BN/METRA and then switch over to former Soo Line route through RIver Forest and Melrose Park. This line has very little freight traffic since CN acquired the EJE. It also would provide a dedicated right-of-way without all the street crossings in Galewood/Mont Clare neighborhoods. This line could also eliminate the need for flyovers at A-2 and A-5. This route could be expanded to provide direct service to McCormick Place and Hyde Park via the St. Charles Air Line.

  • Maurice

    Awesome article. Rick Harness is on point. Servicing the Southside, downtown and McCormick Place with Ohare with potential to connect the south sides to jobs in the Northwest suburbs and south to University of Chicago and Champaign-Urbana is very smart planning and intuitive. Go Crossrail!

  • Stephen Karlson

    With these trains using Metra Electric, is anyone thinking carefully about South Bend to O’Hare direct by limited-stop trains? The Chicago and South Bend air corridor is subject to delay by weather, something the Tribune recently picked up.

  • Michael J. Erickson

    Thank you for a set of bright ideas…to make it brilliant you must go All-Electric Metra, like ‘Go Toronto’ and a host of other rail services worldwide. We would be proud to ride an electric that uses renewables generated along the r-o-w; we would gag on expanding the use of backward / grandpa-type diesel tech. Now that IDOT and Metra have done violence to the commuter rail system by disinvestment it is the perfect time to rebuild to modern zero-GHG electric standards, and reduced headways. Stop Rahm’s foolish Boring Tunnel to O’Hare now.