The O'Hare terminal station as built in 1984, looking toward the airport terminal from the platforms. The curved sidewalls of glass block, backlit in different colors, illuminate the platforms and absorb sound in the station. The stairs and escalators at the end of the platforms ascend through a gray metal wall that mimics an airplane fuselage to deliver passengers to the fare controls and out into the airport terminal. For a larger view, click here. (Photo from Murphy/Jahn)
O'Hare International Airport - Main Parking Garage, Lower Level, O'Hare
Blue Line: O'Hare
O'Hare International Airport
Address: 1000 O'Hare Drive
Established: September 3, 1984
Original Line: West-Northwest Route, O'Hare branch
Previous Names: none
Status: In Use
The O'Hare Terminal in 1985. For a larger view, click here. (Photo by Olga Stefanos)
O'Hare station is north terminal of the Blue Line (called the West-Northwest Route at the time of the station's opening), and was the final station to open as part of the O'Hare Extension beyond Jefferson Park, more than a year after the rest of the extension opened as far as River Road (now Rosemont). Service to the station began on Monday, September 3, 1984 -- Labor Day -- as part of an opening ceremony attended by Mayor Harold Washington, Governor James Thompson, CTA Chairman Michael Cardilli, and US Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA) administrator Ralph Stanley. Jazz great Dizzie Gillespie also rode the inaugural train from River Road to O'Hare along with Washington, Thompson and other VIPs, and he and his band played "Take the 'A' Train" as an invitation-only brunch began once the train reached the airport station.
Plans to extend the Milwaukee Line to the far Northwest Side dated back before World War II, and were modified to route the "L" to O'Hare Airport by the 1950s. Designs for the Kennedy Expressway, drawn up in the mid-1950s, provided for a median strip wide enough to accommodate the two-track rapid transit line, though it would take another few decades for construction of the extension to begin. Popular lore says that, originally, the O'Hare Extension was to be constructed so that it could be easily extended beyond the airport. However, the construction timetable was accelerated by then-Mayor Byrne so that it would be finished by election time, and to do so the design was altered so that it dead-ended in the airport. Ironically, it still wasn't finished in time, Byrne lost the election, and her successor, Harold Washington, cut the ribbon.
Looking toward the airport on the platform between the #2 and center tracks on December 6, 2003 with the AV equipment installed in 2001 in place. For a larger view, click here. (Photo by Graham Garfield)
In the station, there are two island platforms surrounded by three stub tracks, with an open mezzanine above the west end of the station containing the fare controls and the connection to the airport. There is also a mezzanine at the east end of the station, over the entry to the station from the main line tracks, which contains the terminal's trainroom (employee breakroom and clerk's office) and offices. There's an interlocking just east of the station, before the tracks ascend above ground.
This unique station was designed by the architectural firm of Murphy/Jahn, with the design team led by famed postmodernist architect Helmut Jahn. To obtain a column-free platform space, the structural system developed consists of large post-tensioned concrete girders which transfer the parking structure (located above) columns above the train tracks. It was constructed using an open cut excavation, resulting in sloping berms sprayed with concrete. The design utilizes this platform space by providing full-height curving glass block outer walls that are backlit by light fixtures in the berm space. These walls vary in shape, pattern and color, but the effect is an undulating prism of rainbow colors framing the entire terminal environment, enlivening what is otherwise a subterranean space. The ceiling beams and roof are unpainted concrete; the platforms were originally gray rubber flooring with a circular pattern of shallowly raised domes.
Exiting the platform, the stairs and escalators at the west end of the platforms ascend through a gray metal wall whose design mimics an airplane fuselage to deliver passengers to the fare controls and out into the airport terminal. (The wall of the mezzanine at the east end of the platforms leading to the employee trainroom over the tracks to the city mimics the side of a train, originally decorated specifically to mimic the livery of the newly-delivered 2600-series railcars, thus providing visual cues of where each end of the station leads -- to the airport, and to trains to the city -- in a playful approach in keeping with postmodern design.)
The mezzanine at the west end of the platform functions as the entry and exit between the station and the airport, and contains the fare controls for the station. The station mezzanine is very wide though not especially deep, and finished with flat, smooth metal wall panels, suspended ceiling of modular light gray metal slats (which allows for easy removal to access concealed conduits and utilities) with alternating modules replaced with recessed fluorescent lights, and terrazzo flooring of light gray with dark flecks. To one side of the mezzanine is a large 2-position ticket agent's booth, constructed of stainless steel with rounded side and top corners and windows with radiused corners -- a design standard not only to the four O'Hare Extension stations, but other stations of the period whose construction was designed and managed by the city Department of Public Works such as the SOIC and 203 N. LaSalle entrances to Clark/Lake, Cottage Grove, and King Drive. The remainder of the width of the mezzanine was filled with turnstiles -- seven self-service turnstiles entry/exit, along with three exit-only turnstiles at the far end of the array opposite the agent's booth -- to provide as much entrance and egress capacity as possible. Both agent-controlled turnstiles, all three exit-only turnstiles, and four of the seven self-service turnstiles had special railings along side them that allowed luggage to be more easily passed through but still made it difficult for a person to slip through to evade fare payment -- O'Hare was only one of three stations to have these special luggage turnstile arrangements, the other two being the two entrances to Clark/Lake (which were not opened until 1989-91), as the renovation plans for that station envisioned it as a downtown hub for airport travelers.
At the front of the station, the ceiling curves down to meet the entranceway, creating a more intimate portal into the station from the corridor it fronts on. Three large circular columns painted orange with black bands are spread across the entranceway just behind the entranceway; a track for a sliding gate that can close off the station located just behind the columns demarcates the actual transition between the airport and station for purposes and operations and maintenance. The passenger concourse becomes a transitional space between the transit station and the airport, with the underground airport corridor in front of the station connecting to Terminals 1, 2 and 3 through walkways and moving sidewalks. The corridor gray glazed brick walls punctuated by black glazed brick bands, with the bottom gray course being darker and each course a progressively lighter gray; the bottom two black bands align with those on the orange columns. This corridor and the station entrance were originally very open and spartanly appointed, with just a few signs and information displays, to provide an open, clean, spacious appearance. This space would become filled with progressively fixtures and equipment over the years.
The design of the O'Hare station was intended to harmonize with the redeveloped airport Terminal 1, a new 50-gate two-concourse terminal for United Airlines also designed by Jahn and built between 1985 and 1987. In particular, the "L" station's undulating multi-colored illuminated glass block walls are echoed in the airport terminal's general use of curved glass forms and in particular in the underground tunnel connecting Concourses B and C, which features backlit rainbow-spectrum walls and is well-known and beloved by native Chicagoans for it's dynamic ceiling-mounted neon installation titled Sky's the Limit by artist Michael Hayden and playing a slow-tempo version of the song Rhapsody in Blue.
Murphy/Jahn won two architectural awards for the station: the AIA National Honor Award in 1987 and the NEA Presidential Design Award in 1988.
Early Station Modifications
The 1990s brought the first substantive changes to the station, in many cases adding more fixtures and equipment to what had originally been a very clean, open station design. The first major change occurred when CTA introduced its Automatic Fare Collection (AFC) system, which used magnetic-stripe farecards, which CTA dubbed Transit Cards, that could store fare value or be encoded as unlimited ride passes. The AFC system was furnished by the Cubic Automatic Revenue Collection Group, and required replacement of all of the original turnstiles with new Cubic turnstiles, as well as Transit Card Vending Machines (TCVMs) where passengers could buy or add value to farecards.
TCVMs were installed at O'Hare station beginning in 1996, but were not activated for public use until July 1997. A challenge at O'Hare is that the station was designed with very little space in the unpaid area before the turnstiles -- the distance from the turnstiles to the demarcation line between CTA- and airport-maintained property was only a few feet, and the row of large orange columns and station entrance portal were only a few feet beyond that. There was only enough space along the side walls in that area for one, maybe two, TCVMs per side, and if placed there the queues that would form at them would block circulation through the turnstiles. This effectively meant the only place the TCVMs could be installed was in the corridor in front of the station. But rather than placing them along the side wall opposite the station entrance or elevator wall adjacent to the station, they were placed directly in front of the station entrance, freestanding in the corridor. Four TCVMs were placed in a loose square, with a lot of space in between them. Low, blue-painted plywood was placed between them, to discourage people from walking between and behind the machines (though also often trapping dust and refuse). Metal conduit containing the machines' power and communications ran exposed in the air from the machines to the entranceway portal soffit, where it connected to concealed power and comm runs.
Two smaller, off-the-shelf machines (not manufactured by Cubic) to dispense unlimited ride Visitor Pass farecard were added between the TCVMs circa 1998, after a wider selection of Visitor Passes were introduced by CTA that year. In addition, another two TCVMs were later added due to demand for additional fare vending capacity -- bringing the total to six TCVMs -- but lacking a good location for them and apparently not wanting (or not being permitted) to place them in the airport corridor, they were installed in front of the Customer Assistant (formerly ticket agent's) kiosk, obstructing the view through the front windows from inside.
In the late 1990s, pin-mounted cast letters spelling out "CTA O'HARE STATION" were added to the fascia over the entrance to the station from the airport corridor, to better identify the station and its entrance.
In 2001, the CTA made improvements at O'Hare that included new primary and auxiliary decorative lighting and station-wide telephone and public address system improvements. The new A/V signs, which announced train arrivals and other information, were installed around March. Other work to the telephone system and communication equipment were completed as well. The remainder of the work was completed on May 1, 2001.
In 2002, O'Hare became part of the RTA's Active Transit Station Signs (ATSS) project, becoming one of four project text sites. The ATSS signs were intended to provide real-time transit and traffic information on a demonstration (pilot) basis. They displayed a countdown of the minutes until the next departing train, travel times to Forest Park and 54/Cermak, fare information, service disruption or delay messages or any other number of messages the CTA chooses to program into the signs.
A view of the station entrance from the lower level airport corridor on June 3, 2005 shows the new farecard vending kiosk and new Visitors Pass Machines that have cleaned up and improved the appearance and operation of the facility. Note how the kiosk is tiled to blend in with the design of the hallway. For a larger view, click here. (Photo by Graham Garfield)
One of the interesting aspects of the O'Hare and Midway ATSS signs is that the ones in the transit station look like those at the other two test stations, and use graphic consistent with the CTA signage system. But the signs on airport property are designed to harmonize with the existing signage already in the airport (which, coincidentally, are of a completely different design at the two airports). The signs on the platforms were not initially programmed to display the time until next train like the other pilot stations' signs, since the airport stations are at the end of the line and there is usually a train waiting to depart. As implemented, these merely took the place of the backlit "Next Train" signs that they replaced, with one side saying "Do No Board" and the other "Next Train" with arrows pointing to the appropriate tracks. There was a sign posted over the entrance to the station from the concourse (over the TCVMs) which displayed the time until the next departure. There were also signs posted in the passageways leading to the station from the airport terminal, in the lower concourse passages that connect the terminals to the CTA station and short-term parking garages. Both airports also had ATSS signs in the baggage claim areas. The ATSS displays in the baggage claims were not programmed to give the time until the next departure, since in many cases it would take long enough to get from the baggage carousels to the station that the next train probably would have left (plus, many people can't accurately judge how long it will take them to get to the station from the terminal anyway). Instead, they gave the service interval (how frequently the trains run), travel time to the city, and display other CTA and travel information.
The ATSS program lasted a few years, but eventually support for the program wained and the signs fell into disuse. They were slowly removed over time, though on a case-by-case basis. The signs at the head of each platform remained in use until the 2010s, functioning simple as the "Next Train" signs for passengers. The ATSS sign in the airport corridor in front of the entrance was subsequently covered with a static sign marking the station entrance before being removed around 2016 as part of broader improvements at the station entrance.
Fare Vending and Station Improvements
In 2004-05, CTA made a series of improvements to the station overall, and the fare vending setup in particular.
During mid- and late-2004, the CTA improved the lighting levels on the O'Hare platform by replacing the overhead lights and brightening the mutli-colored glass-block walls along the sides.
In late May 2005, CTA forces rearranged the Transit Card Vending Machines that been standing in the airport corridor outside the station since the "L" converted to the electronic farecards back in 1997. CTA trades workers erected a new kiosk in the corridor, centered in front of the entrance turnstiles, between the orange columns that form a colonnade in front of the station. One end of the enclosure raised up to meet the soffit over the station entrance, which allowed the conduits running to the kiosk and vending machines to be concealed. The kiosk was tiled in the same gray and black-banded pattern as the airport corridor, making it blend in and look coordinated with the rest of the environment. The enclosure was designed to house six TCVMs -- the four from the hallway and the two from in front of the Customer Assistant booth; the kiosk was also designed to have metal cabinets for storage with countertops to provide a surface for the Customer Assistants to write out directions, fill out paperwork for refunds , etc. in between the TCVMs, but these were never installed. The two Visitor Pass Machines (VPMs) that had been between the TCVMs in the old array were moved against the orange columns, one each facing the airport corridor. The kiosk was also outfitted with signage, system map posters, placards instructing customers how to purchase their fares, and CTA advertising.
Shortly after the installation of the TCVMs kiosk and relocation of the VPMs, the existing Visitor Pass Machines were replaced with new models. The larger, sturdier, more sophisticated VPMs, produced by fare equipment manufacturer GFI Genfare, could take credit and debit cards, in addition to cash, the first electronic farecard vending machines on the CTA to do so. At the same time, these new VPM models were also installed at Rosemont, Cumberland, Midway, and Chicago/State stations, as well as the Chicago Water Works Visitor Center and Union Station.
In mid-2013, CTA transitioned to a new fare system called "Ventra", also provided by Cubic, which used the same turnstiles (albeit with new farecard readers) but different fare vending machines. Initially, half of the TCVMs in the kiosk were replaced with Ventra Vending Machines (VVMs) to provide a transitional period, and the VVMs were activated in August 2013. Eventually, the remaining TCVMs were also replaced with VVMs. The two TCVMs that had been in front of the CA booth were removed, and the VVMs that replaced them (plus a third) were installed in the airport corridor in front of the station, against the wall of an elevator bank.
In an attempt to alleviate the long lines that sometimes formed at the O'Hare VVMs, an experimental installation was developed to allow customers who only wanted to purchase a single one-way ride and pay cash to skip the process of having to purchase a single-ride Ventra ticket from a vending machine and just pay their fare directly in cash (something not readily available since the transition of ticket agents to customer assistants in 1997). This was accomplished by installing a portable bus farebox (something commonly used at "L" stations at exceptionally high-traffic periods such as sporting events letting out, etc.) along side the customer assistant booth, next to the access gate (a fence gate that is normally locked and only used for staff access as needed). Unlike the portable fareboxes used for special events, which sit on a base with casters for easy movement, the farebox at O'Hare was fixed to the floor, with a removable cover to protect it when not in use.
The farebox was to be used to accommodate riders for both predicted and unpredicted instances of heavy customer traffic. In normal circumstances, an additional customer assistant (CA) would be assigned to the station to staff and operate the farebox, both because the farebox and unlocked access gate could not be left unattended and to allow the regularly-assigned CA free to move around the station and assist customers as usual. During predicted events, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, marathons, concerts and sporting events, preparations for farebox, including staffing, were to be made in advance. During unpredicted heavy customer traffic, when the areas in front of VVMs became congested and/or several VVMs were not operational, station personnel had to contact Rail Control to request the use of the farebox; a rail supervisor or transportation manager would be sent to the O'Hare station to assess if the farebox needed to be opened and used. If its use was deemed necessary, additional station personnel would be assigned to assist with its use as necessary. After receiving approval to open the cash lane, but before removing the farebox's cover and logging onto the farebox, a specially-provided sandwich board indicating the availability of cash fare payment and where to enter for fit was to be set up a few feet in front of the farebox, where the line would form in the unpaid area. After paying their cash fare at the farebox, customers were directed to enter the paid area through the access gate rather than through a turnstile. [Fare Bulletin F51-15 "Farebox Installation at O’Hare Blue Line Station"]
The cash farebox at O'Hare came into use Wednesday, October 7, 2015, just in time for the Chicago Marathon, an event for which very high ridership the days before as runners from around the world begin to arrive is common. It is not clear, however, how often the farebox was used, or for how long. Within a few years it had fallen into disuse and was removed.
Another improvement introduced at O'Hare just before the Marathon in 2015 designed to speed the fare purchase process was the conversion of some VVMs to "Express Ventra Vending Machines" (EVVMs). The change was merely a modification to the menu system on existing VVMs to make navigation to fare types more common and desirable for airport users quicker to navigate to. The starting purchase menu screen was streamlined to initially present the options to purchase Ventra Tickets only (single ride, and 1-day and 3-day passes, on disposable tickets), based on the most commonly purchased fare media at the airports. A new menu choice on this screen, Other Options, provides access to the usual purchase option screens (but without a three-day ticket choice). It was hoped that by reducing the number of steps most customers had to navigate to arrive at their desired fare purchase option, machine use time per customer would be reduced, thereby speeding purchases and reducing wait time in lines. All of the VVMs at both O'Hare and Midway were so modified effective Thursday, October 8, 2015. [Fare Bulletin F55-15 "Pilot Installation of Express Ventra Vending Machines (EVVMs)"]
Premium Fare Introduced
In 2013, a premium fare was instituted at O'Hare station. The fare for passengers entering at O'Hare station was raised to $5; the regular "L" fare at the time was $2.25.
The premium O'Hare entry fare was part of a number of fare changes enacted at the time, and was designed to increase revenue to help CTA balance its operating budget. The premium fare was intended for the traveler market, and was meant to reflect the convenience and value of the 'front door' service the Blue Line provides, since it takes customers directly into the airport terminal.
"Most U.S. transit agencies have an airport surcharge at their airport stations, and the CTA's is among the lower fares," said CTA spokesperson Irene Ferradaz of the premium fare in 2019. "Even at $5, the cost of travel from O'Hare is an excellent value compared to all other vehicular options (taxi, ride hailing, shuttle buses) which can cost between $35 and $50."
The premium fare initially was only assessed on passengers buying single-ride tickets, starting in January 2013. By July of that year, the premium fare was also deducted from Ventra Cards and other types of fare payment methods. To keep the aim of the higher fare at airport travelers and make it more equitable, O'Hare workers don't have to pay the surcharge -- they are able to pay the regular "L" fare at O'Hare by providing their Ventra transit account number to their employer, who submits it to Ventra, which then flags their account, so that they're not charged the surcharge at the turnstile on their way home from work.1
Station Improvements, 2016-18
In 2016, CTA began work on a series of enhancements to the customer experience at the O'Hare station. The biggest focus was on the improvement to the fare vending machines' arrangement, relocating them in a way that made queuing easier and less likely to block circulation though the turnstiles, as well as to provide an installation that was aesthetically pleasing. The effort included several other customer-focused improvements as well. Planning for the O'Hare improvements began in early 2016 with scope development, coordination with the Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA), and refinement of the plans. Ultimately, the work would take about a year and a half to fully implement.
Early on, the decision was made to demolish the fare vending kiosk built 2005 in the airport corridor outside the station entrance, as it was felt that it conflicting with passengers flow from the corridor to the turnstiles. The station also has more fare vending machines than the six-machine kiosk could accommodate. The decision was made to relocate the fare machines against the corridor wall opposite the station entrance, something CTA had long preferred but that CDA had generally opposed; this time, CDA agreed to the plan.
The scheme was for there to be ten (10) Ventra vending machines (VVMs) against the corridor wall across from the station entrance -- the six from the to-be-demolished kiosk, the three that were against the elevator bank wall, and one additional unit. The fare vending machines would be angled to encourage queues at them to form along the length of the corridor, rather than perpendicular across the hallway, blocking circulation. Of the 10 machines, four VVMs were angled toward Terminal 1, while six VVMs were angled toward Terminal 3. Each of the two vending machines arrays were surrounded with a metal enclosure, both to protect the machines and provide enhanced aesthetics. Each kiosk was framed out with aluminum tubular posts and sheathed in stainless steel panels. The front of each kiosk had a 2-foot overhang with recessed LED can lights in front of each vending machine to provide good illumination at the front of each unit. There were vertical stainless steel panels between each vending machine, running corner to corner of the vending machines (since they were set at an angle inside the enclosure), both to close off the space between machines to prevent the accumulation of garbage and debris as well as undesired access to the back of the units, and provide a more finished appearance. The vertical panels and fascia of the overhang provided space for informational signs and graphics. The top of each enclosure was finished with aluminum mesh panels, which prevents garbage or objects from being thrown into or behind the enclosure from the top, but allowed air to circulate in and out of the enclosure to prevent overheating.
Installation of the power and data conduits for the 10 VVMs along the wall was completed on October 5, 2016. On the same day, the three VVMs that were against the elevator bank wall were relocated to the corridor, along with a a fourth machine (the one additional unit that was planned to be added). At that point, work was paused for the Chicago Marathon, which occurs annually in mid-October and brings large crowds through O'Hare Airport and the CTA station. By the beginning of December 2016, the remaining six VVMs were relocated to the corridor and the old kiosk in front of the station entrance was demolished. For a few months, the ten VVMs were in use in the corridor in their final locations but stood without enclosure. The kiosk around the four VVMs angled toward Terminal 1 was built over the weekend of April 22-23, 2017. The kiosk around the six VVMs angled toward Terminal 3 was built over the weekend of May 20-21, 2017. After both were completed, signage was added to the fascia of the soffit extending over the tops of the vending machines, and information panels added to the metal space-filler panels between the machines in September.
The initiative included a number of identity, signage and wayfinding improvements as well. Existing overhead airport wayfinding signs dating from the 1980s in front of the station entrance were deemed visually cluttering and of limited assistance, and were removed. The defunct two-sided ATSS sign in front of the station entrance, long since out of use and its LED displays covered with static signage identifying the station entrance, was also removed. In their place, a 15" x 99.5" two-sided backlit sign, salvaged from another "L" station after no longer needed and refurbished, was installed over the airport corridor in front of the station entrance, with an illuminated blue signface identifying the entrance and Blue Line trains to downtown visible from a distance. Next to this sign, immediately outside the station entry, digital train arrival screens of the type used systemwide by CTA at the time were added. On the left side of the station entrance (near the Haymarket Center), a backlit 30"-diameter CTA logo, akin to the outdoor CTA Identifier signs installed at other stations, flagged off the wall was installed. New, longer unlit signs were installed over the entry and exit-only turnstiles to better identify the entrance and exit points through the fare controls. A large sign was installed on the Terminal 3 side of the elevator bank next to the station entrance (whose hulking, solid presence in the corridor effectively blocks any line-of-sight of the CTA entrance for anyone approaching from Terminal 3) providing wayfinding and reassurance that the CTA station entrance was just ahead, on the other side of the elevators. Finally, pentagonal "collars" about 42" tall were installed on two of the wide orange columns in front of the station entrance, spanning between the lower and middle black bands around the columns. The five flat sides around the columns were large enough to install a CTA-standard 40" x 27" metal information poster frame, providing a total of ten locations to install map, timetable and informational posters, greatly increasing the number of information posters to remedy a long-standing issue the station had of too few maps and information posters both for use by station staff assisting customers and for passengers to use on their own, and too few walls and other places on which to install additional customer information materials. These signage and informational improvements were installed over a period between April and November, 2017 -- the new digital train arrival screens were installed in April, the information displays around the columns completed in July, old airport signs in the corridor removed in August, CTA logo identifier and sign over the turnstiles installed in September, and the long backlit sign over the corridor in front of the station on November 11.
A number of other improvements were made around the same time. A VVM fare vending machine was also installed in the Terminal 3 baggage claim area in March 2017, to give potential customers a chance to buy their fare before arriving at the stations where there tend to be more crowds and lines at the vending machines. A giant fan was installed over the center track at the airport end of the platforms in August 2017 to help with air circulation. Sprinklers were installed in trackways under the platform edges to help wash and clean the trackbed. The walls behind the curved glass block walls (which is actually what the colors are applied to, not the glass wall or the lights) were washed and the lights that shine on them were refurbished to bring vibrancy back to the glass block wall colors. The original can lights over the platforms in the ceiling recesses, as well as square lights added later on the concrete crossbeams, were replaced with new brighter lights, though not until about a year after the other improvements were completed.
Exit-Only Overnight, 2020-2023
Starting Friday night, July 31, 2020, Chicago aviation officials began restricting access to O'Hare International and Midway airports to "ticketed passengers, those assisting passengers, badged employees, and others with legitimate airport business," according to the Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA). Officials said the restrictions were meant "to ensure the safety and security of our valued passengers and employees" amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.2 However, COVID-19 was not the sole motivation for the new policy, according to the CDA, although it was a contributing factor, with the department telling the Chicago Tribune, "It's a policy the airports have been considering for some time, and we've been doing due diligence. Now is a good time, particularly as it comes to decreased passenger traffic, and our desire to maximize efficiencies."3 City Aviation Department officials and Chicago police set up a nightly checkpoint at the airports' CTA stations, with travelers required to show proof that they were flying that day, while employees were required to show their badge or ID. There were no plans for daytime checkpoints.4
Very shortly after the City announced their overnight policy for the airports, CTA announced that passengers would no longer be able to board inbound Blue Line trains from the O'Hare terminal overnight, between 12 midnight and 4am, effective Saturday, August 1, 2020. Outbound trains would still serve O'Hare, ending their trips at the airport and unloading passengers. However, the trains would be "exit only", as CTA described them in a service alert. After discharging passengers, the trains would run out of service back to Rosemont Yard (one stop east of O'Hare) to be cleaned overnight. Service on the remainder of the Blue Line between Rosemont and Forest Park continued to run at all times, including overnight. For passengers needing transit service from the airport, shuttle buses operated from O'Hare (departing from the airport's Bus/Shuttle Center above the "L" station) to Rosemont; at Rosemont, passengers could transfer from the shuttle buses to Blue Line trains to continue their trip.5 While passengers had to pay to board the shuttle bus at O'Hare, then pay the transfer fare at Rosemont to board to the train, the combined bus fare ($2.25) and transfer ($0.25) added up to a train fare ($2.50) -- and half the price of a normal train fair from O'Hare ($5) -- so it did not cost more in fare than if the train were boarded directly at O'Hare.
The CTA stated that the revised operation was enacted to facilitate deeper, more thorough cleaning of trains due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic6 than was possible while trains sat at the O'Hare station platform for relatively brief periods between trips; the level of cleaning required pulling the train into the yard. While this type of "exit only" operation was not enacted at other "L" line terminals, the yards on most lines are at the end of the line, next to the terminal station, making it simpler to pull the train from the station to the yard after all the passengers were off the train, then back into the station from the yard when ready for use. On the Blue Line, pulling the train to Rosemont, then back to O'Hare, is more involved and labor-intensive compared to moving the train from O'Hare to Rosemont Yard, then placing it in service inbound from the adjacent Rosemont station.
Two years into the policy and operation being in place, some confusion and controversy arose when the Jefferson Park Chamber of Commerce stated in a Facebook post7 that, at an "Ask CTA" event (where CTA staff would go out to locations on the system to engage with and answer questions from riders) at the Jefferson Park CTA terminal in October 2022, a CTA representative stated that Blue Line service to O'Hare had been completely discontinued after 11pm, and that the change was "due to concerns about homeless individuals." The chamber's post was shared on numerous social media pages (then picked up by local news and TV stations), and received backlash from residents questioning the reasoning for the change.8 The CTA responded that trains continue to run TO O'Hare every night, but overnight trains from the airport station to Rosemont had been halted for more than two years so crews can clean the trains before they go back into service.9 "The chamber report is completely incorrect," said CTA spokesman Brian Steele in phone interview with Crain's Chicago Business. "There is no disruption of service to O'Hare, which operates 24 hours a day." Patronage at that hour was extremely light, with only a few dozen people a day affected, according to Steele.10 The chamber, however, stuck by its post, however, though allowing that "perhaps [the CTA representative] misspoke."11
The CTA ended the overnight "exit only" operation at O'Hare with little fanfare on Saturday, February 18, 2023. Beginning that night, Blue Line trains resumed boarding customers on trains overnight at the O'Hare terminal.12 A little more than a week later, CTA spokesperson confirmed to Streetsblog Chicago that the Blue Line was back to normal. "After more than two years, the CTA has been able to roll back many pandemic measures, and is now able to provide overnight rail service from O'Hare," the CTA stated. "The brief suspension in rail service during the lowest ridership hours was critically necessary during the height of the pandemic to allow for more frequent cleanings on one of the CTA’s busiest lines, while maintaining service 24 hours a day."13 Chicago police officers, however, continued the policy of asking anyone arriving at the airport via the Blue Line between 10pm and 4am for "proof of airport business," such as an airline boarding pass or an employee badge, due to the airport being a "secure location," according to the Chicago Department of Aviation in a statement.14
A view down the platform from the paid area of the fare control mezzanine on December 6, 2003 shows the undulating multicolored glass block walls that line the three-track, two-island platform station. The large black and white banners hanging down from the concrete beams are advertisements for De Beers diamonds. The O'Hare station, with its vaulted ceilings and high passenger volume, are frequently sold for "ad blitzes", large-scale advertising contracts. For a larger view, click here. (Photo by Graham Garfield)
Beginning in early August 2010, the prototype 5000-series cars went to the Blue Line for testing. Car 5004 is at the front end of an 8-car train that is reached O'Hare station and is unloading its passengers. Because the train is in the center pocket, it has opened its doors on both sides -- the Operator is working the doors and checking the side of the train on the left and an Instructor doing the same on the right. Note the electronic destination sign for "O'Hare" retains the airplane symbol rendered in LEDs. (Photo by Tony Coppoletta)
Car 2250 is dressed for its trip on the ceremonial last trip of the 2200-series railcars in CTA service, on the rear of an eight-car train of 2200s preparing to depart O'Hare terminal on August 8, 2013. The cars' exteriors are decorated with reproduction period decals and signs declaring the trip to be the cars' last. (Photo by Graham Garfield)
The bright, festive Holiday Train is the focal point of the O'Hare station while the train is parked in the center pocket track on December 12, 2015. The train is parked for a long layover to allow for a scheduled photo session where kids can have their photo taken with Santa, adding to the crowds on the platforms. (Photo by Corey Ellison)
The 8-car test train of 7000-series prototype cars sits at O'Hare terminal between passenger trips on the Blue Line on May 21, 2021. (Photo by Lou Gerard)
The cavernous O'Hare station at the north end of the Blue Line is seen from the fare control mezzanine while the 8-car train of 7000-series prototype cars sits in the track 1 platform track between passenger trips on May 21, 2021. The 7000-series prototypes were in passenger service testing on the Blue Line from April 21 to May 21. (Photo by Lou Gerard)
* = Coordinates are approximate, as O'Hare station is not located near any streets. The coordinates are approximately were the station is located on the city's grid system.
1. Greenfield, John. "Q & A: Why Does Catching the ‘L’ From O’Hare Cost $5, and Should I Use a Bike Bell?" Streetsblog Chicago, Mar 24, 2019.
2. Sun-Times Wire. "Chicago airports restrict terminal access to ticketed passengers, employees." Chicago Sun-Times, July 31, 2020.
3. Sherry, Sophie. "Chicago airports restrict access to people with tickets and those helping them, workers." Chicago Tribune, July 31, 2020.
4. Sun-Times Wire, ibid.
5. "No overnight train departures from O’Hare station." CTA service alert. Accessed online August 1, 2020.
6. ABC7 Chicago Digital Team. "CTA makes COVID-19 related changes to overnight Blue Line train services from O'Hare Airport." ABC 7 Chicago, August 1, 2020.
7. Jefferson Park Chamber of Commerce Facebook post, October 11, 2022.
8. Parrella-Aureli, Ariel. "Late Night O’Hare-Bound Blue Line Trains Still Running, Despite Social Media Confusion." Block Club Chicago, October 11, 2022.
10. Hinz, Greg. "No, the CTA isn't ending overnight el service to O'Hare." Crain's Chicago Business, October 11, 2022.
12. Rail Service Bulletin R129-23, issued February 18, 2023.
13. Greenfield, John. "After Lightfoot ousts homeless, CTA resumes ORD ‘L’ service suspended for 'cleaning'." Streetsblog Chicago, February 27, 2023.
14. Camarillo, Emmanuel. "'Proof of airport business' required to enter O'Hare during overnight hours from Blue Line, officials say." Chicago Sun-Times, March 16, 2023.