(ports I don't mention below are not necessary or are not applicable for your endeavor)
IEEE 1394 (FireWire) can be faster than USB 2.0 by a little bit, but is outdated so you won't necessarily find NEW drives to make use of it. But there are old drives which read as well as new drives & sport FireWire, and there might be 5.25 inch enclosures which support FW, but I wouldn't specifically worry about it. Instead, go eSATA or USB.
eSATA is more than enough for an optical drive, but you would be buying an SATA drive & an enclosure yourself, as I think most optical drive manufacturers' external drives these days only offer USB 2.0 or 3.0. (Hard drive manufacturers are keen on eSATA, though.)
Depending on the maker of the hardware that controls the USB ports on your computer, I've managed to do 20x writes over USB 2.0 with no issue. A 4 year old ThinkPad running an Intel processor probably has an Intel controller, maybe some secondary internal hubs to split into more USB ports if necessary, which sounds like a solid setup. 16x reading to the internal hard drive should not be a problem.
Since you're also using an external hard drive, issues could present themselves (if the two ports you used happened to be provided by the same internal hub); I've encountered situations where it has, and where it hasn't. I wouldn't expect it to be a problem.
Blu-ray would be slightly different due to the potentially higher throughput, but that's why USB 3.0 and eSATA exist.
Are you reading discs that have lots of smaller files? Or are you reading a disc with one or two large files, or backing up the discs to image files, both of which mean you're reading the discs fairly sequentially? Guessing from your time estimates, it sounds like you're reading sequentially, so speed would only be a problem once you got to the outermost edges (where you stand the greatest chance of using up all the bandwidth provided by USB 2.0), but either way, your time would be cut down to between 5 and 6 minutes per disc.