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Chicago’s Risky Airport Rail Plan

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(Editor’s note: This idea has been mentioned to the Editor a couple of times. This article cautions those “experts” who are thinking about this innovation.)
Despite rail transit being a 19th century technology, many politicians view trains the same way that they view campaign contributors—you can never have enough of them. In order to provide a 20-minute travel time between downtown Chicago and O’Hare international airport, Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued a request for qualifications for companies to finance, build, and operate express service to O’Hare.
Two consortia, Boring Company and O’Hare Express LLC, that responded to the RFQ were short-listed to submit proposals. Applicants must be able to build the project without taxpayer subsidies. The project must have two stations, one downtown and one at O’Hare. Travel times must be 20 minutes or less with headways (time between trains) of 15 minutes or less. Premium fares must be less than current ridesharing and taxi fares of $30 to $40. Finally, companies must explain how their system would interact with existing transit systems and the environment.
Mayor Emmanuel is intrigued with Elon Musk’s Boring Company despite the fact that the team is the least experienced of the four teams that submitted their qualifications. Musk is proposing using high velocity electromagnetic pods or sleds that could travel at speeds of up to 125 miles per hour. The pods would travel in steel tubes 11 feet in diameter either on the surface or underground.
The prospect of reliable, high-speed train service is alluring. The lack of taxpayer subsidies for U.S. based rail transit would certainly be revolutionary. But there are several reasons to be cautious. First, while the Boring Company is working on pilot tunnels in Los Angeles and Maryland, Musk has yet to prove the technology viable. Many are skeptical that a 125 mph train would be feasible in an urban environment. Most engineers are skeptical that Musk’s approach can bore tunnels four times faster than today’s machines. The machine has to construct tunnel supports as it bores, haul soil to the surface, monitor for construction damage and keep track of all underground utility lines.
And Musk’s proposed electromagnetic pods will not be cheap. The line is likely to cost billions of dollars to build. As of late April Musk had raised $113 million for all of his proposed tunnel projects, but more than $100 million of that came from Musk himself. Obtaining land rights and environmental approval will be challenging. The tunnel or surface steel tubes would have to be constructed in an extraordinarily straight line for the train to operate at high speeds.
All these challenges suggest the high-speed tunnel boring technology might need several years of fine-tuning. Even assuming the technology works, the city of Toronto offers a cautionary tale. Toronto recently built an express train line between Pearson International Airport and Union Station downtown. In order for the line to be financially viable, fares were $19-$27.50 depending on payment mechanism. However, the high fares caused ridership to be more than 100,000 passengers less than projections. As a result, the regional transportation authority, Metrolinx, had to take it over and subsidize the service. This cost taxpayers C$30 million last year alone.
Since assuming control over operations, Metrolinx has made a number of changes. First, the agency lowered the one-way fare, originally ranging from $19.00 to $27.50, to a reduced fare of $9.25 to $12.35, an average reduction of $12.00 per ride. Second, it opened additional stations along the Union-Pearson route transitioning it from an express line to a more traditional heavy rail train service. Yet despite an increase in passengers, Metrolinx will have to subsidize each rider forever, at a staggering cost of $11 per rider.
The actual Toronto train service is totally different from what was sold to taxpayers. Instead of providing a new service at no cost to taxpayers, the train is a drain on the public budget. Instead of providing high-speed rail service to the airport, the train is providing low-speed transit service to neighborhoods. Providing neighborhood service is not a bad thing, but it was not the intention of this project.
Chicago boosters claim that their city is very different from Toronto. For one thing, Chicago has a bigger airport. O’Hare certainly is bigger but only half its passengers’ origin or destination is Chicago. The other half are transferring to a different plane at the airport. A person traveling from Omaha to Nashville via Chicago is not going to ride a train to downtown. Chicago leaders argue that their business district is bigger. Chicago’s business district is larger but most new employment in the region is in the suburbs. Further, Chicago does not have the high residential density and land use policies that make Toronto more conducive to transit service. The biggest challenge may be the routing of the train line through a very built-out environment.
A Chicago airport express train might be viable. It can be dangerous to underestimate Elon Musk. However, city officials must ensure that the airport line pencils out. The city does not need another heavy rail line connecting downtown with the airport; it already has the Blue Line. Depending on the cost and public funding needed for the express train, it might be a better use of resources to improve the existing Blue Line.
(This article first ran in the June 2018 issue of Surface Transportation Innovations.)
Baruch Feigenbaum
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