‘It’s a disgrace, frankly’: The O’Hare trains to nowhere

WGN Investigates

CHICAGO — This is a story about planes, trains and automobiles. And the journey is no less tortured than the famous late 80’s feature film by the same name. 

The automated trains that for decades whisked passengers and airport employees between terminals and a remote parking lot at O’Hare airport have been out-of-service since November 2018.

The original $310 million renovation contract called for the installation of new train cars and an extension of the service to a new rental car facility. It was all supposed to be completed by November 2019 with minimal interruption to service. Since then, problems have cascaded like flight delays during a Christmas week snow storm.

WGN Investigates obtained emails between the contractors and a consultant hired to oversee the troubled project. As recently as February, the airport consultant wrote “the overall project is simply regressing.”

The same email detailed difficulty the new automated train cars had in operating in snow, ice and cold.

 “Vehicle reliability has degraded to essentially zero,” the consultant wrote.

An airport spokesperson said the City remains focused on solving the technical challenges and completing the project. 

“Integrating a new rail vehicle and control system on the existing rail guideway like O’Hare’s is a one-off exercise that is not done every day,” Chicago Department of Aviation spokesperson Christine Carrino wrote in a prepared statement.  

The contractor has cited pandemic-related delays that have impacted supply chains and their ability to bring in technical experts. But keep in mind: The entire project was originally scheduled to be completed more than a year before the pandemic began.

While the people mover has been offline, the airport has hired and deployed a fleet of buses to transport people. The cost for the bus service alone now accounts for nearly one-quarter of the project’s estimated cost.   

“It’s a disgrace, frankly,” said Northwestern University Transportation Center director Hani Mahmassani. It comes as the airport embarks on an ambitious $8 billion terminal construction and expansion plan. 

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