Diverging Approach: Eat Elon Musk’s Lunch

The O’Hare Express project is back in the news now that Elon Musk and his Boring Company is bidding for the project. The project, which started as a pet project from the second Mayor Daley to get express rail service between downtown and O’Hare Airport, most recently ended up with the CTA holding the bag on a $400-million hole in the ground underneath what’s now known as Block 37. Since Elon Musk walks on water in the tech community, his interest in the project is nothing to scoff at. A subset of urban planners fawn over his every move in regards to electric vehicles (which are good), autonomous driving (which will probably be a mixed bag), and his Boring Company’s tunnels (which are currently actively sabotaging a subway expansion project in Los Angeles) as a total paradigm shift in how we move around our cities, and they’re probably right: there’s no going back at this point, for better or worse.

Back to Chicago. The O’Hare Express project is back from the dead, with three corridors under consideration: a corridor paralleling the northern half of the Blue Line; a corridor paralleling the southern half of the Blue Line, then following a freight corridor through River Forest, Melrose Park, and Franklin Park; and the existing Metra North Central Service corridor.

The northern Blue Line corridor obviously already connects downtown and O’Hare in a pretty straightforward alignment. Chicago’s aviation commissioner proposed simply double-decking the Blue Line for express service, which is an, uh, interesting proposal given that the Blue Line runs in a subway, and as an elevated, and in the median of the Kennedy.

In the past, I’ve argued that the most feasible alignment for any airport express service would parallel the southern Blue Line in the median of the Eisenhower, which was built extra-wide to host the Chicago, Aurora, and Elgin interurban tracks before that railroad ceased operations during construction of the Eisenhower. From there, the airport express train would operate along the freight line connecting Forest Park and O’Hare (which is part of the southern alignment under consideration), but running at-grade through River Forest’s residential neighborhoods would probably be a non-starter. Furthermore, this line would open up new transit opportunities for developments and institutions in the near western suburbs (notably Triton College) under a more local service pattern, which of course is not being considered as part of the project.

But this entire conversation misses a huge point: Metra is already in a perfect position to offer premium service to O’Hare over existing trackage. Indeed, the NCS does serve O’Hare and, if you’re able to catch the train, it’s faster to downtown than the Blue Line: trains 102 and 108 make the trip from O’Hare to Union Station in 33-35 minutes, compared with 40ish minutes on the Blue Line from O’Hare to Clark/Lake.

In the past, the Metra “connection” to O’Hare hasn’t been more than an afterthought: yes, Metra ostensibly serves the airport, but requires transferring to a bus to transfer to the Airport Transit System people mover in Remote Parking Lot E before you get to the terminals. This extra time on-property at the airport kills any time savings compared to the Blue Line, and given Metra also charges a significant price premium — O’Hare is Zone D, so one-way tickets are $6.25, which is even higher than the CTA’s $5 boarding charge at O’Hare — it’s not a realistic alternative for travelers. Besides, running only ten trains each day in each direction on the NCS means travelers probably would need to do some contortions to get a Metra train that works with their flight schedules. And, of course, the NCS doesn’t offer weekend service, which is a huge shortcoming on the line and the source of ire for many northern suburbs along the line, which are proactively working with the RTA to study potential funding options that would allow for expanded NCS service. This blog wholeheartedly supports these communities in pursuing innovative financing options to expand off-peak service opportunities in this corridor.

It’s easy to sit here and say “run more NCS trains”, and just about every regional transit advocate has said that at one point or another. However, Metra’s behind the 8-ball a bit since they don’t actually control the line. Let’s back up a second for an explainer.

Most people think of Metra as a monolithic entity that runs the region’s 11 commuter rail lines, and to a significant extent that’s true: Metra has a unified ticketing system (and yes, your ticket is good on any line as long as you stay within the zone pair on the ticket), Metra’s planning staff oversees capital planning efforts throughout the region, Metra’s social media person has to deal with complaints from all the lines, etc. However, the actual system is much, much more complicated.

Generally speaking, there are three types of agreements Metra has for actually running the trains:

  • Full control. On the two Milwaukee lines, the Rock Island, the SouthWest Service, and the Electric, Metra owns and controls everything: they own the tracks, they own the trains, engineers and conductors are Metra employees, etc. (In the case of the SWS the tracks are actually leased to Metra, but it functions the same.) Even then though, Metra may outsource some things like dispatching to other railroads.
  • Trackage rights. On the Heritage Corridor and the North Central Service, Metra owns and staffs the trains but a freight railroad owns the tracks and as such Metra has to play by their rules. This is one of the reasons why HC service is almost non-existent (and why we think Metra should work with Pace or run their own buses to offer complementary bus service under the Heritage Corridor brand) and why it’s difficult to add train service to the NCS. Technically, since Amtrak owns Union Station and a mile of track in either direction, the Milwaukees and the SWS occasionally have to deal with that as well.
  • Purchase-of-Service. When the RTA was first organized in the 1970s to subsidize commuter service, they paid the freight railroads to operate commuter rail service. Over time, four lines – the BNSF Railway and the three Union Pacifics – still use this set-up. On these trains, Metra owns the trains themselves, but everything else – including staff – is under the jurisdiction of the host railroad. Metra has the least control over these lines: since they’re owned and operated by freight railroads, it’s not surprising that those railroads tend to prioritize their profitable freight operations rather than passenger service that was mostly grandfathered in from previous railroads they purchased and merged with over the years.

Back to the NCS: Metra initially launched the North Central Service under trackage rights with the Wisconsin Central Railroad. Since then, however, Wisconsin Central was bought by the Canadian National (CN) Railroad, which is less-receptive to expanding passenger operations. For instance, in 2006 Metra invested in additional stations and significant (but not full) double-tracking through the corridor in an effort to raise the number of daily trains from 10 to 22. However, to hit that magic number of 22 trains, Metra had to operate rush-hour skip-stop trains, which did speed up operations a bit but also allowed Metra to operate two trains within a single window of time. (The skip-stop trains have since been consolidated into a single all-stop to cut costs.) The 22nd (now 20th) train also required some creative scheduling: the last inbound train each night serves Antioch, Lake Villa, Round Lake Beach, and Washington Street before switching to the MD-N and running express into the city the rest of the way. This effectively leaves most of the corridor without an inbound train after 6pm.

Whenever additional NCS frequency comes up, the response is usually a quick “no” from either Metra or the CN, since the corridor is a key part of moving CN freight trains from points north into Chicago, including freight yards in Bensenville and Schiller Park (the former of which requires trains reversing down the MD-W through Franklin Park, leading to some notorious street delays in that community). Since railroads generally don’t play nice with each other, re-routing CN freight trains off the corridor using a different railroad’s tracks is frowned upon (although the CN did purchase the Elgin, Joliet, and Eastern (EJ&E) railroad to allow them to bypass Chicago as needed – and more or less killed the actual STAR Line proposal at the same time).

But what if the focus was less on getting all the way to Antioch and more on just getting service to Rosemont and O’Hare? Two new developments are making that a more attractive possibility.

First and foremost, O’Hare is nearing completion of their consolidated rental car facility adjacent to the O’Hare Transfer NCS station. Most importantly in this context, O’Hare’s people mover is also being extended to the facility. Now Metra riders will be able to walk from train to tram and go straight to the terminals without a bus connection. While dealing with the people mover is still less desirable than going straight into the terminal core like the Blue Line does, it’s worth noting Terminal 5 fliers will still need to use the people mover, and Terminal 5 will start to see more domestic flights as part of the “Global Terminal” core revisioning the city’s Department of Aviation is currently working on.

Second, the Village of Schiller Park applied for an RTA grant to create a transit-oriented development plan on the site of the current CN yard. If the yard is expected to wind down operations in the near future, additional land could be reserved for Metra-dedicated trackage. There would still be constraints at the B-12 Junction (where the NCS splits off the MD-W), but it’s not unreasonable to consider the possibility of Metra-dedicated track from O’Hare to River Grove and using the existing three-track MD-W main line the rest of the way to Union Station. (A stub track at the O’Hare Transfer station would also be needed to allow crews to change ends off the main line.)

It’d be great to roll out full weekend service to the entire NCS corridor, but that’s a heavy lift due to freight implications (and at-grade railroad junctions with the UP-NW and MD-N). But in the meantime, Metra can eat Elon Musk’s lunch and operate dedicated express service to O’Hare in the very short-term future. Current travel times to O’Hare from Union Station are officially as low as 32 minutes including stops at Belmont Avenue, Schiller Park, and Rosemont, which means direct service could break the half-hour mark. While O’Hare express is the target of the current plans the city is pushing, being able to directly serve the Rosemont entertainment district would broaden the customer base and potentially tap another funding source in the Village of Rosemont, which hasn’t shied away from kicking in for transportation infrastructure improvements especially as their “Pearl District” continues to develop and come online.

If you want to see how easy this trip could possibly be, join us for Star:Line Social on Friday, June 15 as we take the NCS to Rosemont to check out the Chicago Dogs. A limited amount of tickets are still available!