Trip Report: MKE-ORD-CHI-MKE

What would be the oddest air/train trip you could take?  Well, would that be driving to Milwaukee’s Mitchell Airport, flying to Chicago O’Hare, taking the Chicago’s “EL” to Union Station, then Amtrak back to Milwaukee Airport.

Yes, even I was asking myself – what am I doing?

However, I have to admit that flying between Milwaukee and Chicago has held a special place in my heart.  After all when I was growing up I always dreamed of flying on an airplane, but our family always took road trips to Wisconsin instead.  My parents felt so bad for me that they decided to help me take my first flight.

Yep – that first flight was in June 1985 on an American Airlines 727-100 between Chicago and Milwaukee.

My dad literally dropped me, my mother, and my eight year old brother off at O’Hare.  My Dad then drove up to Milwaukee and picked us all up.  To this day, I can still replay that 20 minute flight in my mind; I was so excited to take my first flight.

The best part – the flight was overbooked and AA wanted to give us vouchers worth 3x what we paid.  However, I wasn’t going to give up my first flight!  I was a determined 11 year old who wanted to fly.

Thanks Mom and Dad!

Anyway, I digress. Let’s flash forward back to today…

I have been reading good things about the Milwaukee Airport Amtrak Station since it opened in 2005. So I wanted to try to do an air/rail connection both at Milwaukee and Chicago.

Boy, talk about two different worlds.

MKEAmtrakDriving into Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport (MKE) I noticed the Amtrak station parking sign, but decided to park in the main parking garage instead.  Not a big deal.  The Amtrak station is located out in long term parking, but I opted to park closer to the terminal for my flight.

MKE is a very interesting airport.  Some parts are overcrowded and dark; such as the check in lobby. In fact, as you enter the first thing you see are all of the TSA baggage scanners.  Luckily I just had a back pack to carry on, but this lobby was not even designed for check in kiosks.  I still had to stand in line behind several other passengers who were checking in their bags.  Finally I was checked in, but what also caught my eye was all of the empty Frontier Airlines check in positions.  Wow, what a change since the Midwest Express days.

Now once up in the main terminal, MKE is wonderful place.  There is a grand concourse before security with an information desk, fast food restaurants, stores, used bookstore, plenty of seating, and even an MKE Aviation museum.  As you can see, this main terminal area reminds me of a modern version of the main waiting halls of the great railroad stations.    This is definitely a great modern design on a classic idea.Mketerminal

Also, from this main waiting you can see the security lines – and my security line to concourse “C” was lengthy.  So I was off to visit my friends at the TSA and the one scanner they had working. Ugh!

Enough said about the TSA and boarding.

As always, nearly every seat was filled on my 50 seat Bombardier RJ200. It was a beautiful day, so I was happy to be in a window seat ahead of the wing, but this airplane is small!  I am 6 feet tall and I think there was only 4 inches of space between the top of my head and overhead bins, not to mention my knees barely making the squeeze.

Luckily, the door was closed on time and we were airborne in just a few minutes.  Of course, the irony about flying from Milwaukee to Chicago is that you are on approach to O’Hare even before you takeoff from Milwaukee.

After our 20 minute flight and landing at O’Hare, it was time for the test to see how easy it is to transfer from O’Hare to Union Station.  I had three options:

1)      Take a cab, which is the fastest but also the most expensive.  Besides this does not count to me as a true “connection”Hiawatha-Schedule

2)      Take Metra’s North Central Service.  By far, this would have been my first choice, but this service operates mainly at rush hours (and not at all on the weekends).  So I could have waited for two hours for the next train; but why?

3)      Finally there is taking Chicago’s “EL” Blue Line, getting off at the Jackson Street Station and then walking two blocks to Union Station (later I found out you want to get off at the Clinton Station, and not Jackson).

Since my goal was to avoid the automobile and Metra would have been too long of a wait; I was left with the Blue Line to Jackson station option.  So I was off the O’Hare Blue Line station under the main parking garage at O’Hare.

Now, for anyone who has never ridden the Blue Line out of O’Hare; O’Hare is probably one of the best stations in the whole “EL” system.  It was built in 1984, underground, spacious, and well lite.  Also, it is the end of the line so usually the next train is already sitting idle.CTABlueORD

So I boarded the Blue Line and prepared for departure.

Now, I have traveled on subways from Hong Kong to New York to London; but I have to admit none compares to Chicago’s – but not in a positive way.  After all, in a city known for notorious winters; why the heck are most stations outside in the middle of an expressway?  Plus these trains were loud and rough.  There is no way you can converse with someone while riding.  Luckily the Blue Line eventually does go underground, but it is still a far cry behind Asia or Europe.  Personally I think Chicago lost its Olympic Bid for the 2016 games because of the “EL”, but that is just my guess.

Once I arrived at the Jackson Station, I was off to try and find Union Station.

I thought it would be an easy walk.  However, being only somewhat familiar with the Blue Line, I ended up walking down the platform in the completely wrong direction.  When I finally popped up above ground I was standing next to the Chase building, which completely threw me off.  Luckily it was a beautiful fall day and I was playing tourist to a certain extent.  So I just started walking.  However, when I saw the Merchandise Mart and the Wrigley Building; I realized I was headed in the completely wrong direction. At least I could follow the Chicago River to the Willis Tower (aka Sears Tower) and Union Station.

All I can say is I am glad that I was just carrying my backpack and not a roller bag/suitcase.

As I was walking, I started thinking –  isn’t it ironic that United Airlines is headquartered in the Willis Tower, which is just right across the river from Union Station, but Willis Tower is miles from O’Hare.

I guess this also means that most United Airlines employees actually take the train to work.

Hmmm. How ironic.

Finally, I was at Union Station.

Well, my ticket on Amtrak was for the 5:08 pm Hiawatha service.  However, these trains are unreserved and as long as you have a valid ticket, you can get on any train.  Very nice; especially if you are traveling for business. So instead I boarded the 3:15 train.

After a 15 minute wait in the boarding area the gate opened up and we were off to the coaches.

There were about 7 coaches, one of them being Amtrak’s quiet car. In this case I opted for one of the non-quiet coaches in the middle of the train.

What a change from my flight.  I think Amtrak coach seats are even more spacious than the first class seats on the regional jets.  Better yet, there was over a foot between my head and the luggage rack above me.

This is the way to travel. Although, sadly no Wi-Fi – yet!

So we left Union Station and …. Headed towards O’Hare? Huh?

We literally went within seven miles of O’Hare before turning north. With a few interchange modifications I see no reason why this train could not stop at O’Hare too.  But Railflyer is working on that.

After a brief stop in Glenview, we sped towards the Wisconsin border.  It was then that I saw something you would never see on an airplane…a group of four business man standing around a laptop working on a PowerPoint presentation.  There was actually enough room for people to meet on the train!

What a change from the regional jet.

After an hour and seventeen minutes we pulled into Milwaukee’s Mitchell Airport Rail Station (right on time).  There was a little confusion about where to go (perhaps a few more signs would be helpful), but once outside the station I found the long term parking shuttle that took me and about a dozen of my fellow train passengers to the terminal.  Then it was a quick walk to my car and I was out of the airport.MilwaukeeAirportStation

What makes this trip especially interesting is the travel times.  It took me 2 hours and 45 minutes from the time I left my car in the parking garage at Milwaukee’s Airport to the time I walked off the airplane at O’Hare.  However, it took me only 1 hr. and 45 minutes from the time I walked into Chicago’s Union Station until I was back at my car in Milwaukee.  See the train was actually faster – and we aren’t talking about high speed rail here!

…and a heck of a lot more comfortable than that CRJ 200 Regional Jet!

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