Critics Say the O’Hare Express Plan Is Lousy. Could CrossRail Improve It?

Illustration: Gary William Musgrave, Chicago Reader

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With Mayor Emanuel under fire over police scandals and the schools crisis, it’s a strange time for him to move forward with a plan for an airport express train aimed at well-heeled business travelers. But last week the city awarded a $2 million contract to local engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff to identify possible routes, station locations, and a cost estimate for pricey high-speed rail service between the Loop and O’Hare.

Some area residents are applauding the mayor’s plan as a smart strategy for fueling the city’s economy. Others say it’s a case of misplaced priorities, and likely to be a financial disaster. Still others argue the project could be more useful and have broader appeal if done as part of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s “CrossRail Chicago” proposal to link the airport with the southeast side.

First, some background: The O’Hare express was something of a white whale for Richard M. Daley. Stoked after experiencing high-speed rail in Shanghai, he pushed hard for the new airport line, eventually spending some $250 million on a “superstation” underneath Block 37. But the city wound up with a white elephant: that facility now sits empty, a monument to bad urban planning.

Last year Emanuel and aviation commissioner Ginger Evans announced the airport express as a top priority, claiming that it would ease congestion on the Kennedy, create jobs, and generate tax revenue. Parsons Brinckerhoff is expected to take ten months to come up with a concrete plan.

But we know that Evans has ruled out using Daley’s Block 37 superstation, arguing it’s “not a feasible terminus” because it would disrupt nearby CTA lines. And since the express train would require its own set of tracks, it probably won’t parallel the Blue Line, which is shoehorned between lanes of the Kennedy.

It’s likely the corridor for Metra’s North Central Service, which currently stops on the northeast side of the airport on its way to Antioch, would be used instead. The downtown terminal would probably be Union Station, already slated for a major renovation.

A rendering of a possible design for an express train station at O’Hare. Image: City of Chicago

The ride would likely take about 20 or 25 minutes, compared to the current 40 to 45 minutes for the Blue Line, Evans said. She estimated that an express ticket would cost between $25 and $35.

The commissioner told the Sun-Times she’s confident that bankers and lawyers will pony up for a faster, plusher ride. “They want a quiet space where they can talk on the phone and pull out a laptop,” she said. “They’re traveling on expense accounts.”

Bruce Unruh agrees. He lives in Oak Park and flies in and out of O’Hare frequently for his job as a commercial construction rep. He usually takes a cab, at an average cost of $38.

“Even if the express wouldn’t benefit me very often, I’d support all public transportation options like this,” he said. “Thirty dollars to and from downtown would certainly compete with taxi service, and would just plain be more [environmentally] responsible.”

A 2006 CTA business plan for an airport express estimated a $1.5 billion price tag. Although a news release from the mayor’s office said the goal is to avoid using taxpayer money for construction and operations, Evans conceded to the Tribune that public funds will likely be used for building the stations.

Chinese investors in search of public-private partnerships may also be interested in bankrolling the service, according to DePaul University transportation expert Joe Schwieterman. Other possible funding sources include a federal transportation infrastructure loan, or using revenue fromairport passenger facility charges.

Detractors balk at this cost, arguing that the train project would be a wasteful boondoggle. Urban planner Daniel Kay Hertz skewered the plan in a recent Chicago magazine piece.

While no one claims a $30 train ride is going to appeal to ordinary riders, Hertz argues that the service won’t even attract its target ridership of people with deep pockets or expense accounts. Boosters have cited Toronto’s Union Pearson Express as a model, but Hertz notes that ridership on that line has been dismal. In fact, Toronto officials announced last week that fares would be slashed from about U.S. $20 to roughly $9 in hopes of attracting more customers.

Read the rest of the article on the Chicago Reader website.


  • ardecila

    >Evans conceded to the Tribune that public funds will likely be used for building the stations.

    I didn’t read the article that way. The bit about public money seemed to be editorializing, and it goes against all the other reported coverage.

    It’s certainly possible that, for example, ORD Express platforms would be built out in the publicly-funded renovation of Union Station just for efficiency’s sake. But it sounds like the Emanuel team is pushing the planners to consider a standalone downtown terminal for the express train, somewhere in the River West or West Loop areas, and said terminal would be privately funded.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Here’s the line from the Tribune article: “Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans said Friday the city will look for a private company to cover construction costs and operate the system, but it’s likely public money would go into building stations at the airport and downtown if the project moves ahead.”

  • A thought that keeps coming to mind with this project and the city’s assertion that the “business community wants this”, and that it can be “privately funded”, is… if the market did exist for this service, why haven’t private companies come forth with the plan, without the city asking for them?

    We see a lot of people taking their own time (like Mike Payne or the people at Crossrail Chicago) to develop ideas for rail service that they see a market for. They may not be business-oriented, but they’ve done their research. I don’t see the same thing when it comes to O’Hare’s public transportation. Perhaps I’m clueless about how PPPs come about, and someone else can help me with my line of thinking on this.

  • Cameron Puetz

    It would be impossible for a business to put together a functional system without the city’s eminent domain powers, or access to an existing corridor. All of the viable existing corridors are publicly owned, which brings us back to a PPP. That said usually if it’s a good idea there are some backers who show up with money.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Honestly the people I see benefiting the most from a Union O’Hare express are downstate residents using Amtrak instead of a regional airline to start/finish a longer trip. Although the same benefit could be realized for them by having a pass through platform at Union and extending Illinois service trains along the Metra NCS to O’Hare

  • That’s what I mean, though. Why hasn’t anyone approached the city with recommended alignments, stations, a “purpose and need”, etc…

  • david vartanoff

    Here’s what I commented to DKH.

    Well said, Daniel, but consider the following. If Crossrail or some variant connecting to the MED via the St Charles Airline were implemented (including electrifying the O’Hare leg) then the service would both increase commuting convenience for the West of the River area, and give conventioneers a straight shot to McCormick Place and nearby hotels.
    Now, the other reality of airport transit is that actual travelers are NOT the bulk of riders, ground staff are; which again underlines both the value of faster access and the need to have the fares the same as any other CTA service.

  • simple

    Where is the analysis showing that Block 37 is “not a feasible terminus” for operational reasons? How could running 8 trains per hour in and out of that station possibly be more complex or disruptive for the CTA than managing all of the trains that cross each others’ paths entering and leaving the Loop elevated every day? Or is it just that Aviation doesn’t want to play with CTA?

  • Pat

    I think they meant more in terms of construction.

  • ardecila

    No, the hard part is juggling Blue Line trains that stop at every station with Airport Express trains that stop at none of the stations. You would need express tracks like the Purple Line has, to allow for passing. No way around it.

    If you don’t use the Blue Line corridor, then how do you get the trains to Block 37? A whole new $$$ubway under downtown?

  • ardecila

    While this is all true, nothing in the city’s RFP suggests they are interested in a CrossRail-like solution (unfortunately).

    Expect the CrossRail proposal to be included in a short blurb in the final report, with a statement like “does not satisfy the Purpose and Need of this study”, the same way the Gray/Gold Line proposals were given lip service in the city’s South Lakefront Study.

  • FPJ

    Particularly if they really want to get private funding. A private company looking to make a return will want to have a monopoly on upgraded service along the NCS. Crossrail has both the airport express and the S-Bahn-like “Metra Local.” Unless they offered extra features like baggage handling and/or ticketing at the downtown station, I’m not sure why you’d pay extra for a slightly faster train with luggage racks.

  • Pat

    You’re just affirming my comment.

  • david vartanoff

    “”does not satisfy the Purpose and Need of this study”,
    That is, does not divert enough bakhshysh to the favored cronies. Actually useful transit is only a lucky by product of the truie purpose of public expenditures–wealth transfer from the workers to the 1% via taxes.

  • None of this makes sense. A downtown express still would not help (business?) people from south, west or north of the City who want to get to O’Hare faster. Why not spend time and $$ developing a plan that complements/completes the train system we currently have and connect neighborhoods directly rather than via downtown?

  • david vartanoff

    So you raise two separate issues which can be solved as follows.
    Access to O’Hare from the south is best achieved, I believe, by the CrossRail plan which calls for extending Metra Electric via the St Charles Air Line through Union Station and out to O’Hare including electrification all the way.

    A second route which I have suggested in the context of the Ashland BRT is the restoration of the northern piece of the Paulina Connector as well as an extension from the Pink Line to connect in both directions to the Orange Line. What this creates are 1. a direct service between O’Hare and Midway skipping downtown, and 2. with a further extension from the Orange Line to a new stub terminal at the east end of Cermak, both airports achieve direct service to McCormick Place. The next link should connect the Orange Line further south to the Green at Ashland. Yes, this would all cost megamillions–perhaps the equivalent of cutting back the F35 boondoggle. (better yet cancel it entirely)

    Remember Daniel Burnham–make no smallplans.


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

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 […]