Transpo Advocates Discuss the Latest Plans for O’Hare Express

Elon Musk says he can dig a tunnel to O’Hare and transport air travelers via "electric pods." Illustration: Jonathan Roth
Elon Musk says he can dig a tunnel to O’Hare and transport air travelers via "electric pods." Illustration: Jonathan Roth

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

In November 29, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the latest step in his grand scheme to create luxury high-speed express service between downtown and O’Hare. His office had issued what’s known as a request for qualifications (RFQ) for concessionaires to plan, finance, construct, and run the route. Emanuel addressed reporters from within the empty shell of the partially completed, roughly $250 million “superstation” his predecessor Richard M. Daley built underneath Block 37, a symbol of that mayor’s failure to achieve the same dream.

Emanuel said the multibillion-dollar initiative is crucial for Chicago’s future, and argued that fortune favors the bold. “More than a century ago, Daniel Burnham encouraged Chicago to ‘make no little plans,’ ” the mayor said in a statement, adding that the express “will build on Chicago’s legacy of innovation and pay dividends for generations to come.”

But after reviewing the details from the RFQ, local transit experts aren’t so sure. They wonder whether building the route could be practical and profitable for a private company without requiring a subsidy from taxpayers. Tech guru Elon Musk’s recent announcement that he will compete for the opportunity to dig a tunnel for whisking passengers to O’Hare in “electric pods” isn’t raising their confidence in the project’s viability. And transportation advocates question whether the express, geared toward well-heeled travelers and business people on expense accounts, represents an equitable use of city resources.

The new document states that the goal of the project is to cut the time of the Loop- airport trip from the current 40 to 45 minutes via the CTA Blue Line to 20 minutes or less, with service every 15 minutes during most of the day (the el generally runs every four to ten minutes). The express fare is supposed to be cheaper than a cab ride, which the city estimates at around $60, or a ride-share trip, estimated at roughly $40. Chicago aviation chief Ginger Evans has previously projected that an express ticket would cost between $25 and $35 compared to the current fare of $2.25 to O’Hare and $5 from it.

The request for qualifications stipulates that the project must be financed entirely by the concessionaire, but Evans has previously acknowledged that public funds will likely be used for building the stations themselves. RFQ responses are due on January 24, after which the city will select a handful of candidates to move forward with a request for process, the next step in a Hunger Games-like competition to come up with the winning bid.

Created by the engineering firm WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff as part of a $2 million planning contract, the RFQ identifies three potential routes and four potential downtown terminals for the service, although the city remains open to other ideas.

The first route, the CN-CSX Corridor, would run southeast from O’Hare on Canadian National Railway tracks to west­-suburban Forest Park, where it would use the Eisenhower Expressway Corridor and CSX tracks to head east to a downtown station at Congress and Canal.

The CN-CSX corridor. Image: City of Chicago / Chicago Infrastructure Trust
The CN-CSX corridor. Image: City of Chicago / Chicago Infrastructure Trust

The second option, the NCS Alignment, would use Metra’s North Central Service line with either a downtown terminal at Union Station or a new facility southwest of Kinzie and Canal.

The North Central Service alignment. Image: City of Chicago / Chicago Infrastructure Trust
The North Central Service alignment. Image: City of Chicago / Chicago Infrastructure Trust

The third route, the CTA Blue Line/Kennedy Expressway/UP-NW Corridor, would parallel the el line in the Kennedy median as it leaves the airport, bypass to the Union Pacific- Northwest Metra tracks north of Belmont (where the Blue Line goes underground and then becomes an elevated route), and meet back up with the el corridor downtown, ending at the Block 37 superstation.

The Blue Line / Kennedy Expressway / UP- NW Corridor
The Blue Line / Kennedy Expressway / UP- NW corridor. Image: City of Chicago / Chicago Infrastructure Trust

“The initiative will no doubt make many unexpected turns before know we whether or not it is a feasible,” says DePaul University transportation expert Joe Schwieterman. “Like many others, I’m skeptical it can be done with strictly private financing, but I also feel the effort could spur a larger discussion about better cross-town connectivity and modernizing our transit system… It faces long odds, but testing the waters could force us out of our comfort zone and produce surprises.”

Rick Harnish, director of the Midwest High Speed Rail association, has eagerly endorsed the O’Hare Express in the past. He contends his group’s CrossRail proposal, which would connect the North Central Service route to Metra’s Electric District line on the southeast side via a freight route along 16th Street, would add value to the project. Harnish says both the CN-CSX and NCS options seem viable, but the Blue Line scenario isn’t realistic because it would require building above or tunneling below the el tracks.

That’s where Elon Musk comes in. Musk claims his cheekily named Boring Company has proprietary technology that can dig a tunnel 14 times faster than conventional methods, at perhaps a tenth of the cost. In June then-deputy Chicago mayor Steve Koch met with Musk in LA and returned impressed.

After the RFQ was released, Musk tweeted that “The Boring Company will compete to fund, build & operate a high-speed Loop connecting Chicago O’Hare Airport to downtown.” (He subsequently clarified that, unlike his much-hyped Hyperloop scheme to shoot vehicles at more than 600 mph between cities, the roughly 20-mile passageway from Block 37 to O’Hare wouldn’t require the use of vacuum-sealed tunnels.)

Harnish is highly skeptical of Musk’s claims. He notes, for example, that while the inventor plans to save time and money by digging a much narrower tunnel than a typical subway, the Boring Company hasn’t addressed the issue of how to evacuate passengers in an emergency.

“I always reserve the right to be proven wrong,” Harnish says. “But certainly [Musk’s proposal] is a very high-risk endeavor for something that’s such a high priority for the mayor.”

Center for Neighborhood Technology director Scott Bernstein says he’s also “a bit dubious” of Musk’s claim of revolutionary digging technology. Moreover, he’s doubtful that enough travelers would be willing to shell out big bucks for the premium airport service, which could include nicely upholstered chairs, work tables, and beverage service: “How much luxury do you need in 20 minutes?” But even if the express were to get sufficient use, Bernstein wonders if it would cannibalize Blue Line revenue. “Would they be raiding ridership from one part of the system to support another part?”

The Active Transportation Alliance is concerned about the city’s focus on high-end airport service. “Time and attention are being commanded by this project, and these resources could be directed to more efficient and equitable transit solutions,” wrote ATA director of government relations Kyle Whitehead in a blog post last month. He argues that Chicago should concentrate on improving transit access from Chicago neighborhoods to jobs and other key destinations.

Oboi Reed, a leader of the mobility justice groups Slow Roll Chicago and Equiticity, agrees that the express plan, as outlined in the RFQ, wouldn’t be a wise use of public resources. However, he said he would support a Blue Line-based route that includes improvements to the line’s Forest Park branch, which serves lower-income black neighborhoods like Garfield Park, North Lawndale, and Austin.

As for Musk’s potential involvement, Reed says he’s willing to keep an open mind, adding that it’s crucial for residents to have a say in how this tech is delivered to their communities. “Tell Elon to call me, let’s talk.”

  • Carter O’Brien


    An understanding of this fundamental economic concept needs to be drilled into everyone who has their fingerprints (or thoughtprints) on urban planning. There are real and measurable costs for public employee time involved, simply looking at hours spent on reading materials, attending internal meetings, arranging and attending meetings with external consultants and possible vendors, etc. (and don’t forget to include staff benefits in that calculus). But the distraction impact, while harder to measure, is absolutely real as well.

    “Time and attention are being commanded by this project, and these
    resources could be directed to more efficient and equitable transit

  • Random_Jerk

    I would gladly pay $25-30 to get to O’Hare in 20 min from the Loop. I’m sure there is plenty of people that would do the same. CTA isn’t the worst, but it takes forever, and taking it with the luggage during the rush hour isn’t the greatest experience.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I think the luggage issue is a big one that isn’t necessarily going to be solved by this express train. Lots and lots of people go to O’Hare via Blue Line stops all along the route. I’ve often wondered if they could just design one of the cars with that usage in mind.

  • rwy

    How would you put luggage racks in a CTA car without decreasing the number of people the car can hold? Isn’t the blue line currently running at capacity?

  • Carter O’Brien

    Good question. I am sure if tasked with the challenge there is a way engineers could incorporate better luggage storage into that footprint. I doubt anyone has actually put this into an RFP (there certainly don’t appear to be designated areas or compartments).

  • Jeremy

    There used to be luggage racks on the blue line. In the center of the car, above the aisle, there was a shelf. They weren’t practical because, in order to get a bag up there, one would have to be standing to the side. If people were sitting in the seats, it was difficult to access.

  • Jeremy

    Where do you live? Would you take CTA to get downtown? I imagine people coming to Chicago would not want to take an express train downtown, only to then get into a cab to go to a hotel on Michigan Avenue or to an office (like the new McDonald’s headquarters in the West Loop). It just seems easier (and possibly cheaper) to get the cab at O’Hare.

  • david vartanoff

    So in a different article we read that the Blue Line north is seeing major ridership growth. While some sort of Metra/HSR O’Hare hybrid express aimed at airline passengers would be useful, in fact we improved transit now for transit users in general on the NW side. Immediately adding more frequent service and working to lengthen the platforms for 10 car trains should be the priorities. As to the O’Hare express, the HSR proposal including recapturing the St Chaarles Air Line is the better design.

  • rwy

    If a private entity is willing to pick up the tab for construction and operating expenses, having city staffers spend time looking at proposals seems like a more than reasonable price to pay for an airport express.

    But it all seems to good to be true. What if the thing doesn’t turn a profit? Will the investors be out their money? Or will the RTA buy the system from them? Will it turn into an unused hole in the ground?

  • Jeremy

    I can’t imagine a private investor paying all this money without getting ridership guarantees. I picture the city having to buy 5,000-10,000 tickets every day if ticket sales fall short. Toronto needed 7,000 riders a day to break even; they were getting 2,000 until fares were cut in half.

    Another concern of mine is if the investor would be able to block the city from providing a competing service. If the CTA eventually tries to connect the brown line to the blue line, or wants to install BRT on Western or Ashland, the express provider might be able to prevent that from happening.

  • Frank Kotter

    I have made this trip to/from ORD to many points (including Lake/Clark) on the Blue Line – Most of the times with luggage. I have also used other express, regional, and metro trains in other cities from airport stations. I have never seen luggage being an determining factor. The only caveat is that of stations without an elevator/escalator. This sucks anywhere in the world but is acute in Chicago.

    I see this as a red herring

  • Carter O’Brien

    And how would one see luggage as a determining factor, exactly?

    The luggage takes up space – actual seats and floor space – that should be usable by riders. Last I checked O’Hare riders didn’t pay any additional fare for this privilege.

    But I’m glad we agree on one thing, which is that we don’t need this airport express because the current system is working just fine. For airport travelers, anyway.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I’m in a Blue Line car right now, and given the sad ROI we are getting for the ad space you could easily retrofit for luggage.

  • Frank Kotter

    Well, actually we do pay because the extra fare to ORD

    We don’t agree on the need here. The vast majority of people flying in and out of ORD take a private car or taxi. The Kennedy is full and can’t possibly move any more people. The EL is slow and compared to other international airports is an embarrassment to a city like Chicago. The infrastructure for an express train to the Airport is just sitting there utilized. The only thing missing is the track from the METRA to the terminal.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Extra fee is from O’Hare only, no?

    I see the need. I don’t see it as anywhere nearest our highest priority.

  • Frank Kotter

    Correct (unless I’ve been doing it wrong this whole time)

    Nor do I. But I do feel it is the best bang for the buck in Chicago transportation infra currently. It literally needs only mile of track to go under the runways, a few new carriages and a rehashed timetable. What other single project could remove so many car trips with so little expense or blow-back?

  • Cameron Puetz

    Improving luggage access isn’t hard, it’s just matter of making the car floor plans more open. Putting some 5000 series cars on the Blue Line would be an instant improvement. When I ride the Blue Line to O’Hare I never know where to put my suitcase unless the train is empty enough to take up two seats. When I’m leaving straight from work on to catch an evening flight and I take a bag to work on the Red Line in the morning, I sit in the center facing seats and there’s room with the wider aisle to hold my suitcase in front of my knees.

  • Cameron Puetz

    The most bang for the buck would be to actually connect the O’Hare Metra Station to O’Hare and then run that line more like the French RER or German S-Bhan trains, at least on the section between O’Hare and downtown that doesn’t have freight traffic. This would have the added benefit of improving transit access in the neighborhoods west of the Blue Line.

  • Frank Kotter

    Exactly. However, these potential lines are currently not electrified so the upgrade to comparable systems in D or F would be more expensive. Makes the buck bigger without necessarily creating much more bang.

    Great goal to have long-term but I would just like to see it up and running as quickly as possible.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Electrification is nice to have, but not strictly necessary. Since there are no long deep tunnels, the line could be run with Diesel Multiple Units. Modern DMUs provide the same passenger EMUs.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Improving Metra could improve both O’Hare access and general NW side transit access. Connect the O’Hare Metra Station to O’Hare and then run that line more like the French RER or German S-Bhan trains, at least on the section between O’Hare and downtown that doesn’t have freight traffic. This would have the added benefit of improving transit access in the neighborhoods west of the Blue Line. It could also reduce crowding on the Blue Line if people currently taking a bus to the Blue Line rode this train instead.

  • craterlet

    One challenge with using the MD-West line for this is the number of at-grade crossing on the Northwest side. This is addressed in the Crossrail plan, but grade separation certainly adds to the cost.

    The other issue is that there is actually quite a bit of freight traffic between the Bensenville yards and the Chicago Belt Railway just east of Cicero. Metra owns the track, so they could make changes if they want, but true RER/S-Bahn service would require 1) grade separation, 2) electrification, 3) addressing the junctions at Cicero and further east, and 4) having separate tracks for the freight movements.

    All of this could probably be done for less money than the Red Line extension, but Metra has shown no interest in change. Their plan seems to consist of scrambling for enough money to barely keep the status quo going.

  • Carter O’Brien

    If it was easy and cheap it would already be done. And my guess is you haven’t even seen the tip of the blowback iceberg. Embarking on this after raising fares sounds like a PR disaster. (I don’t disagree with the fare increase, it’s just bad timing. But it would help if the fares just went up every year by a much smaller amount IMO)

    You’re assuming removing car trips is the most important metric. There are certainly legitimate emissions metrics there I’d agree with – but there is no guarantee that is the population that will take this. The express users may simply be existing Blue Line riders willing to splurge when its convenient, while people for whom money is no object/can write it off to their employer will just stick with the convenience of a taxi.

    I just see no way to justify this given that we literally have a straight shot subway system that goes from downtown to O’Hare and v.v. Shaving 20 minutes off of this existing service for such a small user base, given the financial unknowns and risk, strikes me as a low priority unless we are more concerned about Chicago’s image than its actual livability. This needs to be connected to a project that will benefit residents and everyday users IMO.

  • Carter O’Brien
  • matt mcclure

    The Altenheim Subdivision route along the Eisenhower makes the most sense. It would have minimal freight interference and miles without any grade crossings and safely in a trench. Seems the no-brainer to me.

  • matt mcclure

    It would seem this post is as a traveler, not a daily commuter. And there are thousands of them. The $25 cost would be very competitive with cabs.

  • Bill