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Chicago O'Hare Airport Transit: Potential for innovative technology

Airline Leader

THE DESIRE TO TRANSPORT more passengers by rail directly into airport terminals (or at least to airport rail stations) at the expense of the private car is growing.
However, finding a way of doing that is not always simple. Existing lines may be inadequate, slower-moving local trains can clog them up, and the cost of building additional track may be prohibitive.
The American innovator Elon Musk is never far away when an innovative solution is called for. Troubled by road vehicle congestion around Los Angeles, he has envisaged a rapid construction tunnel network at multiple levels, which may be a resolution to the issue confronting Chicago's O'Hare airport: how to get passengers from and to downtown on public transport much faster than at present, but not more expensively.

Summary
  • The Boring Company, founded by Elon Musk, has won a bid to build a high-speed express train between downtown Chicago and O'Hare International Airport.
  • The proposed solution involves building a tunnel through which electric pod cars would operate, reducing travel time between the two locations to a matter of minutes.
  • The technology is still in its early stages, but if successful, it could have implications for airports and prospective hyperloop rail operators.
  • The current rail network in Chicago does not serve the airport as efficiently as it could, with multiple lines lacking coordination.
  • The city has been exploring options for a rapid transport system between downtown and the airport, with the aim of reducing travel time to 20 minutes or less.
  • The proposed project by The Boring Company is seen as a test of the credibility of Musk's designs and will be closely watched by other cities with similar transportation challenges.

Summary

  • The city of Chicago has been seeking a private company to build and operate a high-speed rail connection between downtown and O'Hare Airport.
  • There were few takers, but now The Boring Company proposes a tunnel through which electric pod cars would operate between the two locations in a few minutes.
  • It is the latest idea from Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla Inc, the multinational corporation.

The technology is in its very early stages but airports and prospective 'hyperloop' rail operators will be watching the outcome of this project with keen interest.
The Boring Company, part of the business empire of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, has won in a bid to build a multibillion dollar high-speed express train to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. Competitors included Mott MacDonald, the UK engineering firm, and JLC Infrastructure, an infrastructure fund backed by the former basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson.

O'Hare Airport With The Two Blue Line Stations (T1/T5) And The O'Hare Transfer Station (Marked)

The Chicago proposal arose out of Los Angeles' infamous road traffic congestion
The Boring Company is an infrastructure and tunnel construction company which was founded by Mr Musk in 2016, reputedly after he objected to traffic problems around Los Angeles and limitations with the two-dimensional transportation network. His solution is 3-D transport, which means flying cars or tunnels. With the advent of drones flying cars cannot be far off, but according to Mr Musk tunnels are preferable as they are "weatherproof, out of sight, and won't fall on your head".
The concept is a large network of tunnels with many levels. These would "fix" congestion in the city, no matter how large it grew, simply by continuing to add levels. But that would require both a higher tunnelling speed and a considerable reduction in costs - which can be as high as USD1 billion per mile - by a factor of 10 or more, which is the company's goal.
Such fast-to-dig, low cost tunnels "would also make Hyperloop adoption viable and enable rapid transit across densely populated regions, enabling travel from New York to Washington DC in less than 30 minutes". In the case of Chicago, the intention is to build a mechanism that will enable travel from downtown Chicago to O'Hare International Airport in a matter of minutes.
In theory, there is no practical limit to how many layers of tunnels can be built, so any level of traffic flow can be addressed. The cost will be tackled by reducing the tunnel diameter from the current standard of 28 feet to less than 14 feet by placing vehicles on a stabilised electric skate.

Artist's Projection of the Proposed O'Hare Airport Station

Chicago's current rail network not serving the airport as well as it could
According to the CAPA Air-Rail report (2017), Chicago O'Hare is one of several examples in the US where there are rail lines running to/from or through the airport but where they appear to lack coordination.
The Blue Line is part of the Chicago 'L' network, the 'elevated' rapid transit system serving the city and some of its surrounding suburbs. It operates 24/7 out of an underground station at O'Hare to downtown but it travels via 15 stations before it reaches the central business district and its rail line 'Loop' (a circle similar to the London Underground Circle Line).
There are also commuter trains that stop at the O'Hare Transfer station, about 1.5km from the terminals, and from where a shuttle bus operates to the Airport Transit System (a 4.3km/2.7 mile automated people mover). However, trains run only on weekdays.

One solution: rapid transport down the expressway
For some time the city has been looking into a plan for how to fund an O'Hare Express train that would take business people, tourists, the local population (it is in a heavily built-up area), and other travellers between downtown and the airport (a distance of 17 miles/27km) in 20 minutes or less, which is between half and a third of the time it can take on the Blue Line. It would operate at least every 15 minutes and at a price less than a taxi or shared ride fare (which is a similar situation to London before the Heathrow Express, and Paris now, before the CDG Express line is built).
It was not, however, expected to compete with the USD5 single fare on a Chicago Transit Authority Blue Line train.
It had been suggested that lines could run down the centre of the Kennedy Expressway, which goes directly from the airport to downtown, parallel with the Blue Line, or that a Union Pacific Railroad line nearby might be used.
It was widely believed that the city would seek out a private company to cover line construction costs and operate the system, possibly with public money going into the stations at the airport and downtown. Evaluations of potential routes, designs, a construction timeline and cost estimates were made, ready for a tender scenario to start in 2017.
In Feb-2017 the Mayor reiterated that he planned to introduce such high-speed express trains and that the project was expected to cost between USD750 million and USD1.5 billion. Estimates have the price of a one-way ticket at around USD30 to USD35 (the taxi fare is approximately USD40). But there was limited interest amongst potential operators because there was no public funding element.

The proposed technology is at the cutting edge, but only embryonic
All that has been thrown into confusion by this proposed development, and there are concerns about the technology.
The Boring Company was launched only 18 months ago and is working with unproven futuristic ideas. Apart from a test tunnel that the company is digging in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne, it lacks construction experience. Indeed, the mechanism itself is still under consideration.
In 2017 Mr Musk reportedly tweeted his ideas for the Chicago project: "Electric pods for sure, rails maybe, maybe not." One academic was scathing, saying "Elon Musk is looking for a place to prove his technology works, and Chicago is rolling out the red carpet for him."
It does appear, at least, that no government funding is involved. The winner is therefore forced to finance the entire construction cost, and presumably, that includes the stations.
The city of Chicago will now negotiate exclusively with Boring over details of the project for one year. A final go-ahead requires approval from the city council.
The consensus has it that the project will evolve several times before any digging commences.

Other cities will be watching closely
The "visionary" Elon Musk has largely been able to pursue and fulfil visions that others say are too difficult (although there are reservations about his electric trucks for example, despite initial orders from the likes of PepsiCo and UPS).
But this particular venture will test the credibility of his designs to the limit, and will be watched closely by other cities where airports are situated 15 miles or more from downtown and where passenger traffic flows are heavy between the airport and downtown (they are not always). Potential Hyperloop operators will also show a keen interest, of course.