Last month Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg made international headlines with her testimonies at both the United Nations and Capitol Hill. For anyone unfamiliar with her, Thunberg is a well-known advocate for limiting climate change and also is a key figure in the flygskam, or “flight-shaming,” movement due to the high emissions associated with aircraft.
I love planes,* but I completely understand Thunberg’s stance. While planes have allowed millions of more people worldwide to gain faster access to places that were previously a long journey, there are some instances where the abundance of aviation comes into question, particularly when it involves short distances.
When I first heard about Thunberg last year, I asked myself a few questions. Does it make sense to fly from Chicago to London, Warsaw, Tokyo, and Hong Kong? Yes, you have to fly, lest you take a lengthy boat ride. Multi-day boat rides used to be the norm, and Thunberg herself did it when she traveled to the U.S., so who says it can’t be the norm again?! But that likely won’t happen, and planes will remain the norm for the foreseeable future.
On a national level, does it make sense to fly from Chicago to Boston, Miami, Houston, Denver, or San Francisco? Usually. You can make the overnight (or two) drive to these cities, or take a longer train ride (even by high-speed rail standards). But for those who want to get to a place and not waste an entire day doing it, it often makes sense to fly.
Taking it down to a regional scale, does it make sense to fly from Chicago to Detroit, Indianapolis, St. Louis, or Des Moines? It depends, but I lean on the “no” side of things. The cities are close-enough distances apart that many people drive. Yet, there are dozens of commercial flights each day between these cities. For many Midwest metro areas, Amtrak is another option, though we all know how terribly funded it is.
This beckons the question: How many daily flights exist from Chicago to other regional cities, and what are comparable options for taking the train?
While the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions have high population density as well as high-volume Amtrak service, I feel Chicago is a better proxy to assess flight options versus trains for several reasons. The city and region have the potential to improve on a robust transportation network. Chicago, with its two commercial airports, is the largest city between the coasts and is the origin of hundreds of such short flights each week, or even each day. The city is also known as the rail capital of the U.S., acting as a central hub of an expansive rail network (freight and passenger) with many spokes. Milwaukee, Madison, Minneapolis, Des Moines, St. Louis, Louisville, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Cleveland, and Detroit are metropolitan areas within fairly easy driving distance (i.e. under six hours) from Chicago. In addition, the land is flat. Other than some minor geographic inhibitions (such as Lake Michigan or some small hills here or there) there is no reason why faster rail (not even “high-speed”) can’t be accomplished in the region. For the sake of simple comparison, Berlin, Tokyo, Paris, Moscow, and Delhi also are global cities with two airports, but they have broad local and regional rail systems, too, and have managed to work around geographic inhibitions for rail. But, as is common in America, rail travel is an afterthought for most people making shorter-distance trips, despite the robust U.S. rail history.
Let’s break it down by flights by city.
Taking a very unscientific approach, I searched the Internet to see how many nonstop, direct flights from Chicago to these individual cities occur on a Thursday. I chose Thursday because that is often a day when consultants fly back to their home cities, when conferences conclude, and when people want to get a start on an early weekend. I searched Kayak to cover most airlines and then also Southwest’s website. Although this approach might not cover all of the commercial flights, it gives a pretty good sense of what’s available. (Interestingly, I noticed that after the UN Climate Action Summit where Thunberg spoke, Kayak also included Amtrak travel options for some cities at the top of the search results, something the website hadn’t done previously. Note, these were not paid Amtrak ads either.)
I also looked at Amtrak’s website to see availability for the same dates. For most cities, there is an option for an Amtrak-customer-only “Connecting Bus,” which expands the options for travelers. For this article, I’m only focusing on trains, not buses.
Chicago to Milwaukee
- Flights: 13
- Trains: 7
Beginning clockwise to the north of Chicago, It’s no surprise that Milwaukee has minimal air travel from Chicago due to the cities’ proximity to each other. Rail service also is fairly strong, by current U.S. standards, with Amtrak’s popular Hiawatha Service. A proposal to expand the service to 10 trips a day to accommodate passenger volumes is (no surprise) facing resistance in several Chicago suburbs, as the proposal calls for freight track modifications that concerned residents fear will impact their communities. Despite relatively good frequency of trains and my many visits to Milwaukee, I have always traveled by car, as do most folks I know in the Chicago area. But given the potential for more available daily trains, perhaps I will consider Amtrak on my next trip.
One other potential rail route that is currently just a dream among railfans is connecting Milwaukee with Kenosha, where Metra’s Union Pacific North Line terminates from Chicago. This route used to exist as part of the old Chicago and North Western network of lines. (When he was a kid, my dad actually took overnight trains on the C&NW’s 400 series trains to rural northern Wisconsin. Imagine doing that today!). Unfortunately, this dream keeps getting crushed, most recently by former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his peers. Time will tell how new Governor Tony Evers treats this proposal, if it ever gets momentum again.
Chicago to Detroit
- Flights: 29
- Trains: 3
A few years ago, I joined a company with an office in the Detroit suburbs. I’ve traveled there a couple of times for work, each time by plane and then a $60 taxi ride each way from the airport. In fact, every time I’ve traveled to Detroit, I’ve been at the airport, for a city that is less than a five-hour drive from Chicago. Certainly, the Motor City hasn’t been too kind to rail over the years. Just looking at the flight-to-train ratio above, and it’s no question why many people opt to fly. My current company’s office is literally located a stone’s throw from an Amtrak station. On my most recent trip, I considered taking the Amtrak, to which my Detroit-based colleagues said, “Uh, why?” This comment was partially rooted in their anecdotal experience with Detroit-Chicago Amtrak trips and partially rooted for general American aversion to Amtrak. One of my colleagues who has ridden this Amtrak route numerous times has told me that while it’s nice to have free time on the train, the ride often gets delayed by freight trains and has taken up to six hours at times. With all of this considered, I opted for the flight due to the abundance of options compared with Amtrak, the potential for a faster trip, and the fact my company would reimburse me for everything, including first- and last-mile travel. It’s a shame, however, that rail transport is sparse in Detroit, a city with a formerly impressive central station and a direct tunnel connecting with Canada, which is still used for freight transport. But until the frequency and speed of Amtrak trains improve on this route, I’m likely to be flying once again.
Chicago to Toledo
- Flights: 3
- Trains: 2
I’m including Toledo here solely for the fact that I once flew an ATA (remember them?!) turbo-prop plane here to work at a conference in October 2004. It was my first and only time on a propeller plane, and it was cold and rainy, making for a less than comfortable flight. I flew the same plane on my return trip. Why did I fly in the first place? Because I don’t like driving long distances, even when the mileage is expensed at a favorable rate, and preferred not to take the bus. And trains between Chicago and Ohio don’t have the most favorable schedule. More on that below.
Chicago to Cleveland
- Flights: 20
- Trains: 2
Cleveland is farther than most cities on this list but still falls within the six-hour driving distance threshold. It is also still accessible by rail. But because Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited trains travel through, but not to, Cleveland, en route to Chicago or the East Coast, trains in Cleveland tend to stop overnight, not during normal waking hours. (A former manager of mine was from Cleveland and told me his train-aficionado father would take the midnight trains.) Trains all over the world travel overnight and make stops along the way, so this is not unique to neither Amtrak nor Cleveland. But when there are ample options available to fly a short distance or even make a moderately-lengthy drive, those are likely more appealing than staying up late and risking little or no sleep on a train. I’ve been to Cleveland for work a few times, by either car or plane. The train was never considered an option. Now, with the Hyperloop apparently on the table between Chicago and Cleveland, there is little chance anything will improve in the near term for this rail route.
Chicago to Cincinnati
- Flights: 23
- Trains: 1
My dad grew up in Chicago but went to college in Cincinnati. He would take the Illinois Central trains from the old Dearborn Station in the South Loop each fall and have no issues getting to the university. Fast forward 55 years, and Cincinnati sees little passenger rail traffic, but certainly has a number of options to fly. I’ve only been to Cincinnati once, and that was by car. Like with Cleveland, Cincinnati’s Amtrak access is a through stop (not the final destination) that gets you there in the middle of the night via the Cardinal Service. It’s the same deal if you’re going the other way.
Chicago to Indianapolis
- Flights: 16
- Trains: 1
The train route to Cincinnati travels via Indianapolis, which is great because three metropolises are connected within six hours, mainly through Indiana. Sounds like a no-brainer for high-speed rail, right? Well, like Wisconsin’s former state officials, the presiding party in Indiana’s executive and legislative branches doesn’t think too favorably of using tax dollars to fund the Chicago to Indianapolis route (which is similar to what members of that party think about Amtrak and passenger rail nationwide). To be fair, the train was only supplementary to the days Amtrak’s Cardinal Service trains didn’t run, and, like with many pass-through cities for Amtrak, didn’t have a favorable schedule for riders. Thus, the only trains to Indianapolis are the ones that continue to Cincinnati. Although flying from Chicago to Indy isn’t commonplace, the 16 flights per day indicate there’s a demand for them.
Chicago to Louisville
- Flights: 14
- Trains: 0
I’ve never been to Louisville but have heard mostly good things, aside from the bridge boondoggle. Interestingly, as I was thinking of this article, I got a notice from Rick Harnish, Executive Director of the High Speed Rail Alliance. He asked readers for their stories on when they wished they could take a train. The impetus behind his request was the fact that there is no passenger rail service to Louisville, and, thus, he flew to the city from Chicago for the annual Congress for New Urbanism conference. His tracking of the door-to-door flight experience sums up what many airline passengers go through every day and also why there are an unmet need and untapped market for passenger rail.
Chicago to St. Louis
- Flights: 21
- Trains: 5
St. Louis is the terminus for Amtrak’s Lincoln Service and also a stop for several of Amtrak’s long-distance trains. Advocates have pushed for high-speed rail between Chicago and St. Louis for years, but the route in its current form is nowhere near the end goal. Of those I know who have taken the Amtrak along this way, they have said positive things, so maybe I’ll try it one day. As for flying, I never flew on an airplane until I was 18. What’s funny is my first trip by plane was a dinky 40-minute flight from Chicago to St. Louis. (It’s also the first, and hitherto only, time I saw someone throw-up on a plane; fortunately I was sitting across the aisle.) I was with my dad, and I can’t recall why we didn’t drive. Chicago to St. Louis takes fewer than five hours by car, and with how early we arrived at the airport and then eventually having to rent a car at the airport anyway, the time “saved” by flying was negated by total travel time. But it’s interesting because the flight I was on was full, as was the return trip. I wonder if the Amtrak trains making those same Chicago-St. Louis trips at that time were at capacity. It’s hard for me to imagine that they were.
Chicago to Des Moines
Trains: 0 (not even an Amtrak bus option)
My sister went to college in Des Moines and mostly drove or sometimes flew. Like Louisville, Des Moines is also a city without passenger rail service, which is unfortunate as it is could act as a stopping point or hub of its own for trips to Omaha, Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis. Des Moines is the least-populated city that I talk about in this article, so having a hub there may not make perfect sense. But having 13 flights to the city and no rail service doesn’t make much sense either. Simplifying things down to a single city-to-city connection, rather than a full rail network: Both Illinois’ and Iowa’s departments of transportation explored developing a high-speed rail line between Chicago and Iowa City, applying for (and receiving) funding via President Obama’s High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail program (the same program Gov. Walker rejected). A cost-benefit analysis had favorable findings for the states’ rail advocates. Alas, this was nearly a decade ago, and the political environment since then hasn’t been the kindest to the project, which remains stranded at the station.
Chicago to Minneapolis
- Flights: 36
- Trains: 1
At 10 o’clock from Chicago and a six-hour drive away is Minneapolis. Like Cleveland, it’s farther than other cities on this list but still theoretically accessible by a simple train ride. The city is relatively forward-looking in its adoption of urban rail and housing policies, though I’m not too sure where St. Paul falls on this spectrum. Still, the Chicago & North Western Trains used to travel here, as well. Today, the only Amtrak trains that go here are making a pass-through stop en route to the Pacific Northwest. When the only trains are those making a 2,000-mile trip, the number of trains you’ll get on a daily basis is few and far between. The number of flights to Minneapolis-St. Paul is remarkably high for such a short distance at 36. Many of these are Delta flights, no doubt a legacy from the former Northwest Airlines. Still, one can wonder that if there were more train trips along this route that the number of flights would be pared.
Chicago to Madison
- Flights: 6
- Trains: 0
Coming back to Wisconsin, Madison is a relatively quick drive from Chicago, albeit a little longer at two-and-a-half hours. Day trips between Chicago and Madison are common by car and plane. Potential train riders are out of luck, unless they want to take the Amtrak to Milwaukee and then a bus to Madison for a four-plus-hour journey, nearly twice as long as other means. Like Milwaukee and Minneapolis, the Chicago & North Western line, in addition to others, used to regularly serve Madison. For such a short distance from Chicago, it makes zero sense to not have rail service to a state capital and flagship college town. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, former Gov. Walker didn’t like the whole high-speed rail idea. For more information on that, Wisconsin Public Radio currently is running a mini-serial podcast about the recent history of rail service in Wisconsin.
Are Americans Green-Minded Enough to Forgo Planes?
This brings us back to the headline topic: Is flight-shaming possible when there are no better alternatives to get to a destination in a reasonable amount of time?
Given the current situation with rail service in the U.S., it is difficult to steer people away from planes (or cars), no matter how environmentally minded people want to be. The flygskam movement might give people a nudge, but rail service needs to improve to make that nudge permanent.
Airlines know that many personal and business travelers will fly if a plane is an affordable, convenient option. So by making planes abundantly available throughout the day, why not fly? Airlines also offer code sharing and transfers from other cities. This is particularly important for people flying into an international hub like Chicago en route to a regional city like Des Moines; they would transfer at the airport to another plane. That process can far less stressful than possibly having to retrieve your luggage from baggage claim and likely having to take a taxi/rideshare or subway/light rail to downtown only to board a train that, as of now, is often slow, oddly scheduled, or non-existent. (Some of the Amtrak options for the cities I’ve discussed, aren’t even daily trains and only operate a few days per week.) Very few U.S. airports are directly accessible by Amtrak.
Many people, including me, also drive to other Midwest cities from Chicago. It’s just an easier way to travel much of the time. Until the rail service here is fully complementary or superior to driving or flying, it will be difficult to flight-shame average Americans into taking the train. This is very unfortunate because back in the heyday of U.S. rail travel, trains fanned out everywhere in the region from the center core of Chicago. Today, however, train travelers are few and far between. Is that due to lack of supply (due to railroad consolidation, bankruptcies, spin-offs, and eventual creation of underfunded Amtrak) or lack of demand (due to people opting for cars and planes)? That might be a question to answer at another time.
For flight-shaming to work extensively, we need a high-quality rail system to serve as an alternative for potential fliers, encouraging them to change their mind-sets about trains. But belittling people to change their habits isn’t an effective way to do business. The efficient rail service needs to be there much more than flight-shaming. This is much easier accomplished in practically all of Europe.
For now in the United States, we’ll continue seeing many travelers up in the air, bound for their regional destination.
* I also love trains and am hopeful for an outstanding high-speed rail network in the U.S.