Railroads & Locomotives History On the radar: Metra service to O’Hare airport

On the radar: Metra service to O’Hare airport

By David Lassen | December 18, 2023

| Last updated on December 28, 2023

Commuter agency aims to build service between downtown and airport

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Commuter train stopping at station with large parking structure in background
A Metra North Central Service train stops at the O’Hare Transfer Station. O’Hare’s Multi-Modal Facility — the rental-car center, parking garage, and final stop for the people-mover system — is in the background. David Lassen

It’s likely many passengers don’t realize commuter rail operator Metra serves Chicago O’Hare International Airport. But then, “serves” may be generous. What the commuter operator provides is more akin to a cameo appearance.

Peoplemover with airplane flying over
The O’Hare airport peoplemover system connects the Multi-Modal Facility, next to Metra’s station, to the airport. David Lassen

In 2022, the airport handled almost 664,000 commercial flights and more than 68.3 million passengers. Metra addresses this with 12 trains, Monday through Friday only, on its North Central line. Those trains stop at a modest station behind the airport’s massive rental car building, the Multi-Modal Facility, connected to the terminals via the Airport Transit System, a people-mover using Bombardier trainsets.

The Metra station — officially known as the O’Hare Transfer stop — is rarely busy. In 2018 (the last year station-by-station data is available) a fall passenger count found 241 people used the station, ranking it 183rd among 233 non-downtown stops.

CEO/Executive Director Jim Derwinski would like to change that. He says Metra is nearing the point of moving expanded O’Hare service “from just a concept on the white board to a design concept.” That would mean beginning preliminary engineering “so we can start getting our hands around, ‘What would this cost? How many phases could it be put in?’”

One aspect would be equipment dedicated to O’Hare service — “vehicles that are designed to handle luggage,” he says. “Even our friends at the CTA today, their cars just aren’t designed to handle luggage.” (The CTA’s Blue Line serves O’Hare, but Metra could be much faster. An L train from Jackson Boulevard in the Loop takes about 50 minutes. A North Central train from Union Station takes 34 minutes; express service would decrease that.)

New equipment, though, brings its own demands: Derwinski says new trains would also require land for yards to maintain it: “Our yards are congested.”

But equipment is only a small part of what Metra needs to become a serious player at O’Hare. The big part is the ability to run a significant number of trains.

“The one thing that O’Hare service needs is to be consistent and reliable,” Derwinski says, noting the current service is a “random hit” in terms of usefulness. “If it’s every hour, we’re getting better. And ideally, we’re down to 30 minutes or 20 minutes.”

Accommodating that many trains, on tracks shared with other Metra trains, freight traffic, and Amtrak (near Union Station) will require a major investment.

Map of Metra rail lines between Chicago Union Station and O'Hare airport
Metra’s route from Union Station to O’Hare airport.

“It’s going to take capacity on the segment from [Tower] A-2 to Oglivie and Union Station. It’s going to take capacity from A-2 to A-5,” Derwinski says. “A necessary infrastructure improvement is going to include an entire main line section from A-5 to B-12. … Figuring out how we would be able to run robust enough service, but not impact [CN and CPKC] freight movement, those are the challenges.”

Commuter train rounds curve at junction
A Metra North Central train makes the transition from the Milwaukee West line to the North Central’s CN tracks at Tower B-12 in Franklin Park, Ill. David Lassen

The answer?

“Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure: flyovers, crossovers, mainline sidings,” he says. “But I can tell you there’s a big interest to do that.”

Derwinski, Chief Operating Officer Kevin McCann, and Dan Miodonski, manager of service design, have been mapping out an O’Hare plan for at least four years. And O’Hare service was part of an ambitious $5 billion proposal, dubbed the “Big Ask,” that Metra presented to the state in 2019. “COVID has slowed a lot of things down,” Derwinski says.

While the pandemic put the brakes on the project, there are now financial incentives to move it forward. The federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and the $45 billion Rebuild Illinois Capital Plan, signed into law in 2019, means money exists that makes it worthwhile to look at “some visionary stuff that really could produce some different ridership patterns for us,” he says. But to chase federal funding in particular, he says, “you’ve got to have a ready project: partly engineered, environmentally done, and [with] a financing plan. Those are the core elements to being a grant winner.”

It is likely not coincidental that, when Metra ran a special train on Dec. 10 for the Bipartisan Policy Center Congressional Exchange [see “News photos: Metra operates congressional special,” Trains News Wire, Dec. 10, 2023], the train ran between Union Station and O’Hare. Chicago-area U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, who was on board, said in a post on X that the trip was to discuss the infrastructure needs of Metra and other rail lines.

So don’t be surprised if you hear more about Metra service to O’Hare soon. Perhaps that station tucked behind the rental-car building won’t remain the little-used stop it is today.

— This article originally appeared as part of new article on Metra in the updated 2023 edition of the Trains special issue, “Chicago: America’s Railroad Capital.” That issue is available at the Kalmbach Hobby Store.

Train in middle of S-curve
Metra’s congressional special passes through Elmwood Park, Ill., on its way back to Union Station from O’Hare on Dec. 10, 2023. David Lassen

4 thoughts on “On the radar: Metra service to O’Hare airport

  1. No one will schlepp luggage from the station on the wrong side of the car rental station to the ATS and spend 20-30 minutes just to get terminal 1-2-3. Unless they can get a train station under the central part of OHare it’s just wishful thinking. They need to be like Zurich or London Gatwick.

  2. +1 to building an underground station.

    We can debate whether it should be under Terminals 1-3, the International Terminal, or somewhere between them. (or maybe both?)

    I’d argue that there should be enough tracks for Lincoln Service, Salku, and Illini trains to originate at O’Hare, in addition to “O’Hare Express” trains. This works well in France, where there’s little point in flying to any other airport than CDG, where you walk downstairs for a TGV to nearly anywhere in the country. In this case, you’d fly into ORD and take a train to nearly anywhere in Illinois.

    Phase 2 could be to add more platforms and support trains heading north of ORD.

  3. Dedicated, high-speed trains with luggage racks and comfortable searing similar to the Heathrow Express is one part. Second is a station easily connected to either the ATS-perhaps using the now-shuttered, onetime end station. Better would be a facility connected to Terminal 5 so there is walking access to international flights and the ATS to Terminals 1, 2, and 3.
    With the consolidation of rental cars into the multi-modal facility on Mannheim Road, there are hundreds of acres of space available.
    Finally, running trains on the freight and commuter-choked MD-W is a non-starter for dedicated, high-speed trains. Instead, upgrade the B&OCT Altenheim Sub along the Eisenhower Expressway and it connects to the CN for easy access to ORD. Nearly no freight competition and in the trench next to the expressway no crossings for miles. Global 1 is now empty and this area connects directly to the Altenheim Sub and would be ideal for a maintenance facility. To stay competitive with ATL, Chicago must return to Daniel Burnham-scale plans.

  4. Real rail infrastructure requires emulating Europe and operating frequent dedicated service from Union Station directly into ORD. This is the expectation in the 21st century.

    Few people, especially with luggage, favor making a transfer to an airport bus to achieve the final route into the terminals.

    Perhaps such funds will be found by re-directing the high costs associated with the onslaught of illegal immigration..?

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