Daley lays tracks for high-speed rail to O'Hare/City seeks proposals for system to rival those in Europe, Asia, May 2, 2011

Still itching to build something big for Chicago even in his final days in office, Mayor Richard Daley has invited technology experts from around the world to submit concepts for an express rail service to O'Hare International Airport.

Whisking travelers from downtown Chicago to O'Hare in 10 to 20 minutes, it would be the first rapid passenger rail line connecting a downtown and an airport in the U.S., rivaling express trains in Beijing, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Paris and Shanghai, officials said.

"Rich has an idea a minute, and his recent trip to China brought this to the forefront for him again," said Lester Crown, chairman of a 17-member committee that Daley appointed to explore O'Hare express rail service after an earlier plan to use the CTA Blue Line fizzled.

Responses to the city's "request for information and interest," due by July 26, will land on Rahm Emanuel's desk at City Hall. Mayor-elect Emanuel has expressed interest in the project. As White House chief of staff to President Barack Obama, Emanuel helped craft the administration's plan to build high-speed rail corridors across the U.S.

The initial objective of the O'Hare solicitation is to get suggestions from potential investors to finance, construct, operate and maintain the express rail project. Interested parties are required to identify potential routes and options for stations downtown and at the airport, as well as suggesting schedules and amenities to make the premium service attractive to customers.

The city wants the nonstop trains to operate about 20 hours a day. Daley's only other overarching requirements are that the new O'Hare service be developed without public funds and operate at high speeds. Daley said construction of the bullet train line could begin in five years.

The mayor frequently mentions as a potential model for O'Hare service his ride last year, aboard a magnetic levitation train in Shanghai. The Chinese maglev train briefly reaches a top speed of 267 mph on the short trip between Pudong International Airport and the outskirts of central Shanghai.

Members of the mayor's O'Hare express rail committee, however, said it's more important to focus on travel times than speed and on developing a premium-level service that handles baggage and delivers passengers directly downtown and into the airport terminals.

"Trains going 150 mph and faster don't make any sense for the distance to O'Hare," said Sam Skinner, a committee member who served as U.S. transportation secretary under President George H.W. Bush.

Skinner said identifying the best route will be key and using an existing right of way "would be a big plus." The route mentioned most prominently by rail experts is the right of way along Metra's North Central Service between Chicago Union Station and the O'Hare Transfer Station near the airport's remote parking lot F.

From a broader perspective, the project offers opportunities to connect the O'Hare service to Illinois' high-speed rail program, which is being coordinated with other Midwestern states, and other local mass-transit projects of the future.

Long-term transit projects include the proposed Metra STAR Line, which would provide expanded suburb-to-suburb connections; a proposed extension of the CTA Blue Line, possibly to DuPage County; and commuter rail service to Rockford.

"This is an exciting and really dynamic opportunity to do all the things that transit can and does do in a lot of other places in the world," said Rod Eggleston, vice president of rail in the Great Lakes region for HNTB, a leading infrastructure innovator.

"Interconnecting and expanding the various transportation modes would create an environment for the passenger that will only increase the viability of Chicago as a driving power," Eggleston said.

While there are strong signs that investors interested in public-private partnerships are looking for viable projects like O'Hare express rail, "on the public sector side, we don't have the money to make major investments in transit projects right now," said Leanne Redden, senior deputy executive director for planning at the Regional Transportation Authority.

Chicago Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino accompanied Daley to China last month to learn about rail technologies there and to drum up interest in the O'Hare proposal. During her tenure running Chicago's airports, Andolino has traveled extensively throughout Asia, the Middle East and Europe touring the most sophisticated airports and studying train-to-plane links.

"Hong Kong was our last stop with the mayor, and I went on to South Korea," Andolino said. "Before I got back home, we had interested parties coming to Chicago to have conversations about the airport rail project."

Skinner said he, too, has received calls from "big players."

"Whether that translates into real proposals, I don't know," he said. "But I do think there is real interest, especially by people who have built these kind of rail systems in Asia and Europe."

Andolino and other members of the O'Hare rail express committee, many of whom have traveled on bullet trains in other parts of the world, declined to state any preferences for one type of train technology over another.

They also steered clear of offering ideas about whether to base the new service downtown at Chicago Union Station; the partially built Block 37 station, which under a former concept was to house a premium version of the CTA Blue Line to O'Hare; or a new location.

"We have some thoughts, but we want to hear what the experts have to say," Andolino said. "Our biggest thing is that we don't want to stifle anybody's creativity."

In the interim, meetings are set on Gov. Pat Quinn's recent request to Amtrak for a study on what it would take to introduce O'Hare express rail service between Union Station and the O'Hare Transfer Station. Metra's North Central Service, on the Chicago-to-Antioch route, makes 11 round trips each weekday with stops at O'Hare, but it doesn't operate on weekends. In addition, Amtrak offers the opportunity to bring train travelers from other parts of the state and the country to O'Hare, officials said.

"Hopefully we will be able to put a plan together for expanded O'Hare service in the relatively near future that does not require the kind of investment that Mayor Daley's high-speed plan calls for," said Joseph Shacter, director of public and intermodal transportation at the Illinois Department of Transportation.

"Both plans are about improving choices. Ours is to do something in the much more immediate future," he said.

Copyright © 2011, Chicago Tribune

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