Thursday, September 27, 2012

O’Hare airport/rail connection shines

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More than most airport/rail connections, Chicago Transit Authority's Blue Line serving O'Hare International Airport makes me smile. I revisited that old friend as part of my trip to RSI/CMA 2012, and the service functioned as solidly as ever.

More American cities are linking their nearest international airport or two with a rail connection to a downtown (or two), and that's gratifying to this traveler. And more such links are on the way (hello, Dallas/Fort Worth International and DART). Be it coming or going from the Bay Area, Minneapolis, or Atlanta, a long taxi ride isn't part of my travel plan, and I can only hope the folks going over my Railway Age expense account appreciate the cost savings.

CTA Blue Line OHareThe Blue Line is purely functional; it's not a shiny showoff like MARTA's link with Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International (though I really like that one, too); it's not a tricked up people-mover that happens to wander off airport property. It's a subway train for much of its trip, including when one boards underneath O'Hare's infrastructure (as shown in photo at left). Some folks find the subterranean fit discomforting; I find it just the opposite, an affirmation of serious rail infrastructure interwoven with everything else, not an "add-on" item. Add to that it operates 24 hours a day (or so it's said).

Each time I get ready to ride the Blue Line, I tamp down my own expectations. There'll be a lot of local stops, it'll take a while to get to the Loop, I might not get a seat (outbound, anyway), my luggage may become burdensome. Chicagoland natives, even those who also use the Blue Line, do something similar, I've noticed, almost an apologetic downgrading of expectations.

But residual rush-hour delays on the highways paralleling my inbound trip reminded me that the "faster taxi" isn't an automatic alternative, so while it took time to get to my destination, the automobiles weren't doing all that much better. Though seat choice was plentiful at the start of my inbound train trip, I wasn't alone boarding at O'Hare by any means (and lots of folks were coming into the airport by train as I was leaving—travelers and workers alike, I judge). Luggage wasn't a problem for me or my fellow passengers, including those with their own luggage.

Back home and back in the office, I pondered the latest announcement from the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey that it once again weighs extending its PATH bistate heavy rail service from Newark-Penn Station toward the airport – not into it just yet, just toward it – to interface with its current airport monorail system.

Such a direct rail deficit isn't limited to New York/New Jersey (though in my mind New York is the most flagrantly deficient). Los Angeles has its Green Line light rail service that just couldn't quite make the airport—federal funding rules and FAA oversight and all that, don't you know. The Washington, D.C. Metro just about gets to Washington Reagan, but it's a walking schlep, or so I'm told (my trips to D.C. involve Washington Union Station). All in all, even where rail links come close, or even real close, there's room for improvement.

But CTA's Blue Line? In workmanlike style, it just does the job day in and day out, as it has since it debuted in the oh-so-distant past (September 1984). It's a favorite of mine. Consider it, if you haven't already, next time you're bound for Chicago. If you're like me, and not like the lucky souls homebound to Atlanta or Cleveland metro areas with comparable rail links, you'll find yourself wondering why more U.S. airports don't do it the way Chicago has.

In fact, the way Chicago has done it twice, but we'll perhaps talk Midway Airport (CTA Orange Line) rail access, which debuted in 1993, some other time.

Douglas John Bowen

Douglas John Bowen is Managing Editor of RAILWAY AGE. He also served as Editor of Intermodal Age from 1989 to 1991, and has held various positions at Inbound Logistics magazine, High Speed Transport News, The Journal of Commerce, and CNN/Money. Bowen began his journalism career at the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey daily newspaper. A graduate of Rutgers University, Bowen resides in Hoboken, N.J. He served as president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) from 1987 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2010, serving on the NJ-ARP board from 1984 until 2012; he remains a member of the statewide organization.