Downtown to O’Hare in 32 Minutes: On Board a Little-Used Metra Line

It sounds like a pipe dream: a brand new express train that will whisk people between O’Hare and the Loop in 20 minutes or less. Next month, the city will receive proposals from two private companies competing to build such a line. Many know that there’s already a route to O’Hare – the CTA’s Blue Line – which, once some renovations are done, will take about 35 minutes from the Loop. But fewer may know there’s another, faster train route that already exists. We decided to hop on board.

It’s 3 p.m. at Union Station and passengers are boarding Metra’s North Central Service. Some are bound for the northwest suburbs, but a select few, with luggage in tow, are headed to O’Hare International Airport. Five stops and 32 minutes later, the train pulls into the O’Hare transfer station, located in a satellite parking lot just off Mannheim Road.

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Metra spokesperson Michael Gillis says the route is one of the region’s best-kept secrets.

“You can get to O’Hare fairly quickly on our service,” Gillis said. “It obviously doesn’t work for everybody, but it does work for certain people.”

The reason it doesn’t work for everyone is because it doesn’t run very often: 10 times a day each way, and no service on the weekends. The last portion of the route utilizes right-of-way from Canadian National, a heavily used freight line. Gillis says it would cost a significant amount to build the infrastructure to beef up Metra service.

“It would require us to renegotiate our agreement with CN – it would require a more significant investment in our part  right now we’re struggling to maintain the system we have … so we don’t have a lot of expansion projects on our books,” Gillis said.

He also says the city of Chicago has not reached out to Metra on a possible expansion project. But Chicago Deputy Mayor Robert Rivkin says that it has encouraged those bidding on the express project to consider building a new line along the Metra route. Two companies, O’Hare Express LLC and The Boring Company – which is headed up by Tesla founder Elon Musk – are hoping to build the new express line. Musk’s vision is to bore a new tunnel between the Loop and the airport and then transport people via the still-developing Hyperloop technology. Rivkin says the final route will be up to the winning bidder, but they will have to shoulder all the costs.

“The whole premise has been, if you can do this at no cost to taxpayers, we’ll give you the opportunity to do it,” Rivkin said.

A similar project in Toronto failed to generate enough ridership. It wound up being subsidized by Ontario’s regional transportation authority.

Out-of-towner David Dunford, who uses the Metra O’Hare line multiple times per year to visit family in Chicago, says he finds the service convenient and would prefer to see efforts focused on expanding it.

“Certainly this station could be upgraded. I see a lot of people using this system when I’m on it,” Dunford said. “So I think building a new upgraded route, if its financial feasible, could be helpful.”

Once the train arrives at the O’Hare transfer station, passengers board a shuttle bus that takes them to the terminals. But a brand new parking garage with a people mover station is about to come online, which means passengers will soon be able to connect directly from the Metra stop to terminals.

Ultimately, riders will have to determine how much their time is worth. The trip on a potential new express line could run upwards of $30. The Metra fare is $6.25.

Follow Paris Schutz on Twitter: @paschutz

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