CHICAGO — Three days before Christmas, on the busiest holiday travel day for Chicago’s airports, O’Hare’s automated train system broke. The outage spanned three days and stranded thousands of travelers some of whom missed connecting flights.
It wasn’t the first – or the last – time the airport train system failed to function.
Kristen Fundo found herself stranded after arriving on a flight from Saudi Arabia just before Christmas.
“I’m very confident in saying: I will never fly through O’Hare again,” she said.
Fundo missed her connecting flight to Memphis when the airport train system went down and there weren’t enough buses to accommodate passengers.
“It ended-up being a full two hours of waiting outside in 17 degree weather,” she said.
Fundo said she wasn’t able to get home for an additional 24-hours.
The automated train system connects O’Hare’s terminals and remote parking lots as well as a new rental car facility. WGN Investigates reviewed records that revealed the train system had to be taken off-line for at least 30 minutes or more 53 times in the 10 months since it fully reopened. Some of the outages were for planned maintenance or software upgrades; but the train system unexpectedly failed to function on 17 days due to weather or various system failures, airport officials acknowledged.
“Anytime you’re dealing with new technology, you’re going to have problems,” travel expert Peter Greenberg said.
However, O’Hare’s train has had more trouble than most.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration originally promised the system would be upgraded by the end of 2018 without a significant disruption in service. When that deadline came and went contractors told the Chicago Department of Aviation it would be necessary to stop all train service to get the upgrades complete. As WGN has previously reported, air travelers were put on buses during the shutdown at a cost of more than $80 million. The system didn’t fully reopen to travelers until April 2022.
TRAINS STRUGGLE IN WINTER WEATHER
Before the system reopened airport consultants warned winter weather hampered the trains’ reliability.
“After a few weeks of snow and ice during testing in February 2021, a consultant wrote: “Vehicle reliability has degraded to essentially zero”
Perhaps sensitive to the train’s turbulent tenure, O’Hare airport officials did not widely notify the public of the pre-Christmas outage as it unfolded. WGN Investigates obtained internal communications that showed as the shutdown stretched from hours to days airport bosses struggled to find enough buses to shuttle passengers or understand when service would be restored.
“As the temperatures fall we are having difficulty getting trains to move,” one airport official informed other managers.
There were “brakes fail to release alarms,” “door alarms” and “battery faults,” records show.
O’HARE OFFICIALS RESPOND
Chicago Department of Aviation officials publicly defend the train system’s performance while privately weighing legal action against the contractors.
“The Chicago Department of Aviation takes its duty very seriously to service as responsible stewards of public funds and public safety,” an airport spokesperson said in a statement. “Compensation related to bus transportation costs, construction delays, reliability and other commercial issues are part of an ongoing, active mediation process involving parties associated with the Airport Transit System contract.”
Airport officials note the train system carries an average of 180,000 passengers per week and travel the equivalent of 10,000 miles per week.
“The Chicago Department of Aviation continues to upgrade the automated system’s equipment and software to improve its reliability, particularly in harsh weather,” deputy aviation commissioner Kevin Bargnes said in the statement. “Regardless, the statistics demonstrate this three-mile people mover has become a reliable piece of airport infrastructure.”
The primary contractor on the project responded to our inquiries by pointing the finger back at the City of Chicago: “Parsons continues to work closely with the City pertaining to its contract scope. However, our scope does not include system operation. Therefore, inquiries pertaining to operations should be addressed to the City.”
Ironically, aviation officials signed-off on documents declaring the train project “substantially complete” on the same December day service failed. The declaration triggered the final payment on the $333.3 million contract.
Notes from a weekly briefing between the train system’s contactor and airport officials indicate there’s reason to think outages may continue. “Recurring vehicle faults continue to adversely affect fleet reliability,” a memo dated December 27, 2022 said. In fact, there were four more unplanned outages in January and early February. Weather records indicate temperatures were at or above average on three of the four days.
The train trouble can inconvenience Chicagoans as well as connecting passengers who often leave themselves little time for delay.
“Most of the people who fly to O’Hare are not coming to Chicago they are coming through Chicago,” Greenberg said. “As a major connecting hub, if you move one chess piece, you lose the whole board.”
TURBULENT TIMES AHEAD?
The upgraded trains were the first stop in a massive expansion at O’Hare International Airport. Gate space in Terminal 5 has been increased by 25% with a new Delta SkyClub, dining and retail options. Terminal 2 is being rebuilt as the new international hub, making connections to O’Hare’s largest carriers – United and American – easier. It’s an $8 billion project that experts caution could make for turbulent times for travelers.
“Look at LaGuardia,” Greenberg said. “They decided they were going to redo LaGuardia without closing it. It was not fun for anybody.”