The City of Chicago should partner with Metra to create an express train that links Ogilvie Station and O’Hare Terminal 2 with a trip of 25 minutes or less.
Other cities should build similar trains to their airports.
The service will slash travel times by roughly half and deliver benefits that ripple out widely across the city and region—boosting our economy and quality of life, improving our overall transportation options, making O’Hare much more accessible, and creating the foundation for transforming it into a world-class transportation hub.
Better economy and quality of life
Airport express trains are a core amenity and key competitive advantage in cities around the globe. By giving travelers and suburban residents a fast and convenient way to get downtown, they boost spending, save lives and money, and offer a stress-free alternative to congested roads.
Better overall transportation
The O’Hare express train will have immediate benefits for Chicago by improving two critical assets—CTA’s Blue Line, which is overstuffed with luggage and riders, and the Kennedy Expressway, which is clogged with vehicles making their way (slowly) to O’Hare.
The express line will protect and leverage the city’s massive, ongoing investments in O’Hare in two key ways. It will make it easier to get to and give drivers an alternative to standstill traffic on local roads, especially I-90. More people using O’Hare means a growing revenue stream to justify the modernization projects and pay off the bonds. It will also set the stage for making O’Hare into a full-service transportation hub with convenient connections to bus lines, commuter and passenger trains, and high-speed rail service that connects the whole region.
Nuts and Bolts
The express line should have departures every 15 minutes during normal operation and every 7 minutes during peak hours, with two-tiered pricing—$10 for tourist class and $25 for business class.
The full ride—O’Hare to downtown—should take 25 minutes (or less).
The line could have intermediate stops at River Grove and Fulton Market.
The service should also have full integration with the CTA’s Ventra card, offering convenient tap-on/tap-off boarding and exiting.
Union Station is one option for the downtown terminus, but Ogilvie Station is easier to navigate.
The most likely route would run from one of these stations through the A2 interchange and along tracks owned by Metra and CN Rail, stopping at River Grove and Fulton Market. (There is an alternative route running to the south of those tracks.)
Ideally, the line will run directly into Terminal 2, but the new O’Hare Transfer Station could serve as an interim option.
The express service offers a prime opportunity for Metra to experiment with and adopt new train technology as it modernizes its aging fleet.
TexRail, for example, recently began using light, fuel-efficient trainsets that accelerate and brake faster than heavier ones—while using less fuel, creating fewer emissions, and causing less wear and tear on tracks than heavier trains, making them cheaper to operate.
In addition to the speed factor, an O’Hare airport express will be superior to the CTA’s Blue Line in two key ways. It can offer tiered pricing, with more spacious seats for passengers willing to pay a business-class premium.
And all passengers would benefit from the convenience and safety factor of having luggage racks.
This high-profile project has received lots of media attention. Metra could pursue the express line independently, but the visibility and strong demand for it create the potential for private funding and third-party partnerships. Those will boost one of the great strengths of the service: It can be a testing ground for innovations that Metra rolls out across its fleet, like modern trainsets, more efficient fare collection, and level boarding.
Examples and Best Practices
There are great examples for Chicago to borrow and learn from—most famously, Heathrow Express in London and Narita Express in Tokyo. But the most relevant is Toronto’s new airport express, UPX, which began operation in 2015.
It’s a separate division of MetroLinx (similar to Chicago's Regional Transportation Authority) and is operated by the private firm Bombardier, which also operates Toronto’s commuter train system, Go Transit.
Key takeaways from Toronto’s example are the importance of 1) setting fares at a reasonable rate and 2) making the line an attractive option for commuters.
In early 2016, UPX slashed fares to $12.35 cash or $9 with a fare card (from $27.90 and $19). It also began marketing express line—which has two intermediate stops between the airport and downtown—to commuters. Ridership increased dramatically and immediately, tripling to about 6,500 daily riders in the first few months after the fare cut. In June 2018, UPX set a monthly record of 417,000 passengers—or nearly 14,000 per day, a 20 percent increase over the previous June. Roughly a fourth of UPX riders use it as a commuter service—i.e., to get to work and sports and entertainment events.
That success suggests that a reasonably priced O’Hare express, with intermediate stops at River Grove and Fulton Market, will become a vital, well-used commuter option in Chicago.
Rome’s airport railroad station offers another success story that Chicago can learn and borrow from.
From Fiumicino Airport, travelers can board the Leonardo Express, which runs nonstop to a station with connections to high-speed and commuter trains. From the airport, they can also board direct trains to Venice and local commuter trains.
The express trains serve Rome's Termini station where passengers make connections throughout the country.
It’s time for Chicago to move beyond talking about an airport express train and get it done.
It will require coordinated action from several key players—including you!
In addition to supporting Metra’s efforts to secure funding, the mayor should instruct the Department of Aviation to establish a right-of-way for the line—and incorporate an express station into the design for Terminal 2.
Metra should seek out private-public partnerships, begin purchasing the lightweight rolling stock needed for the service, and start designing the line’s infrastructure.
The Illinois Department of Transportation should initiate and oversee the integration of Amtrak’s Illinois trains with the Metra express. IDOT can also help identify funding sources and facilitate design work on the line.
Congress should create a program to rapidly expand passenger trains, including airport express trains, nationwide.
You play a vital role in moving this project forward as well. Please sign the petition asking Congress to create and fund a nationwide program to expand high-speed and conventional trains.