The South Shore doubles its act!

The South Shore doubles its act!

The South Shore line project involving work to double the route and modernise the street section in Michigan City continues. The main route also sees upgrades and enhancements at a number of other locations. The ninety mile route gets a brand new railroad too! This is a new branch off the South Shore’s main route at Hammond and its eight miles long upon an elevated structure with three stations.

These upgrades will no doubt elevate the South Shore’s role as a commuter route between Chicago and Indiana and the fact it acquires a brand new route too only serves to highlight its importance as it begins to serve communities that have previously not had any proper rail connection to Chicago. The work has been supported by the State of Indiana and is underway with completion for the Michigan City section in 2024.

Whilst researching and writing these posts, it was amazing how a streetscape could change completely by morphing from a main highway to a railway. Its simply near impossible to see that the new look South Shore railroad alignment is to all purposes and intents the alignment of those former streets such as E 11th and W 11th Streets! Here’s one before and after shot that will have one thinking, ‘this can’t be the same place!’ But that’ll be discussed a bit more later….

The same location on the South Shore line! The houses at left and a tree on the right can be seen in both!

The South Shore Line #1

The line’s history in brief – how it all started:

The South Shore line (originally the Chicago, Lake Shore and South Bend) opened in the early 1900s – reporting mark NICD – not to be confused with the Chicago, South Shore and South Bend Railroad (CSS&SB) reporting mark CSS – which is in fact the freight operation since the two concerns were separated – the former is now under NICTD (Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District) and the latter an ongoing private concern owned by Anacostia.

Work began on the new Interurban line began in 1901. By 1903 as a street trolley system the line had reached Indiana Harbour just three miles distant. In 1904 a change of ownership occurred and South Bend soon became the line’s objective instead. South Bend was reached in 1908.

The Chicago, Lake Shore and South Bend was bought by the CSS&SB in 1925 thus both routes then shared the same name. The line involved a considerable amount of street running in Chicago, Michigan City and South Bend.

The first railcar to arrive at South Bend, 1908. Source: South Bend Tribune.

By the sixties the passenger operation found itself in the same dire situation that befell most of American’s Interurban railroads. Interestingly it was asserted by Railroad Magazine (Feb 1953) that Interurban Railroads were often a ploy to get someone rich – a strange claim since this too could be said of the highways industry that has been well documented as having befallen many of these Interurban lines! California’s Pacific Electric system being perhaps the most famous victim of this well documented and controversial drive to turn America’s Interurban Railroad systems into highways. Fortunately Railroad Magazine at least gave the CSS&SB credence for being a company that offered a genuine need – which was fast and cheap transportation.

The South Shore system has been through many fortunes, good and bad. It was described by the NWI Times as ‘glamorous at times, dire at others.’ The romantic notion of an Interurban happily at work wasn’t always the image that was conveyed. The line’s railcars had been built in 1926 and many were still in use by the 1980s whilst much of the track and infrastructure was badly in need of work. As the NWI Times describes, ‘It took a mighty act of political will to save the passenger railroad.’ In 1956 the Indiana Toll Road was opened and this took a lot of custom away from the South Shore. It ended up doing quite badly for the next couple of decades or so.

The South Shore in it early days. It had restaurant cars and Pullmans! Source: Twitter.

By 1967 the operation had been bought by the Chessie system who soon saw the South Shore as an anachronism. In 1971 the company declined to join the newly created Amtrak network. The South Shore passenger operations were soon targeted as being outdated and not conductive to company operations. By 1977 an application was put in in order to discontinue the line’s passenger operations. This was approved but suspended while enquiries were pending. The NICTD was soon created and this incorporated the South Shore line – thus saving it – this is when the railroad’s ageing cars began display advertising banners that said ‘The Little Train That Could.’

The result was the line continued operations as a classic Interurban Railroad – practically unheard of in the States! NICTD funded the line in order to keep it in operation and procured the moves to buy the railroad entirely new stock – the first batch of which arrived in 1982-83. The operators alas suffered financial issues and went bankrupt thus by 1990 the NICTD had bought the South Shore outright.

Passenger Train Journal for 1977. The contents details the South Shore’s ‘stand off’ – its refusal to be closed down. The picture is of 11th Street station, Michigan City, at night.

The long standing issue with the South Shore’s services (plus the CSS who have track rights over most of the South Shore’s route) has been the street running sections. Whilst a fair amount of the line can be found running parallel to main highways, its on street sections were another issue. Those in Chicago were superseded by new private right of way tracks. Those in South Bend continued until an accident forced the company to end its on street services and terminate next to the city’s main station instead. That new stop opened on 7th July 1970. It was said ‘the new station would eliminate the inconvenience caused by operating trains on South Bend’s city streets.’

This task of switching the line’s terminus to a new location took three years of preparation and that followed a 1967 incident involving a service which failed to stop in South Bend. ‘Two of the most unusual accidents on the South Shore took place within a week in April of 1967 at South Bend. On the 14th the one car train moving into South Bend from Chicago struck something near Bendix. Whatever it was it hit it knocked a brake pipe loose which rendered all the air brakes useless…. the motorman then began to turn the handbrake wheel – but the chain connecting the wheel with the brakes had rusted – and when pressure was brought to bear it broke. From then on it was all the way downhill to LaSalle…’ (Part of commentary on Youtube video – link below)

The aftermath involving no.29 14th April 1967 at E. LaSalle Avenue. Source: South Bend Tribune.

The state inquiry found railcar no.29 had been out of control for two miles (over 3km.) The problem was no.29 had been doing the permitted 70mph line speed on the outskirts of the city – but when the time came to slow to 10mph in order to proceed along the streets of South Bend, the engineer found to his chagrin no.29’s brakes didn’t work. He immediately turned the motors to reverse in an attempt to slow no.29 down. It did slow down somewhat but the speed still was too fast for the oncoming bends. Those reverse curves on the first section into the city were taken so fast no.29 swayed wildly.

The violent swaying of no.29 caused its pantographs to be caught in the OHLE and then those snapped off. Hence its power too was lost. No.29 continued its out of control trip on a falling gradient with neither brakes nor power to stop it! Even the handbrakes had failed completely. No.29 sped through the city and smashed into a number of automobiles. When it came to the line’s terminus no.29 sped past that and careered across the St Joseph River bridge before entering the South Shore’s depot at speed. Having run out of track there no.29 shot across another highway and crashed into the LaSalle Salvage Company’s premises. Amazingly a repeat performance involving a different unit – no.104 – occurred just a week later on 21st April 1967 on exactly the same stretch of track. Luckily the outcome of this second incident wasn’t quite as severe even though no.104 crashed too. Alas the accidents prompted the town’s then Mayor, Lloyd Allen, to request the company cease operations in the city’s streets and find a new terminus elsewhere.

Colour images of the accident at South Bend in 1967. These were rendered from The South Shore Story video on Youtube.

In 1992 the South Shore was extended to a new terminus at South Bend Airport. The tracks had largely existed prior to this, having been built as early as 1961 as a freight route. This route has proved somewhat analogous as it entails a circuitous route with a number of highway crossings Not only that it misses out the town’s Amtrak station which it had previously terminated at. There are plans to move it’s location in view of faster transit times to Chicago but also to provide a new link to a second terminus in downtown South Bend. Its been suggested this might be sited where the former Union Station is.

Any projected work at South Bend is separate to that related to the Double Track Project which is the main focus of this post. There have been no definite plans as yet for South Bend, however any upgrades there would complement the NWI double track work because even quicker transit times would be gained along the entire 90 miles of South Shore line.

Commuters at 11th Street station, Michigan City, as their Chicago bound train arrives. Source: Twitter.

Michigan City was a different case altogether. First of all it was the line’s through route. The problem was any removing of that section would mean there was no through route between Chicago and South Bend. Secondly, the line’s major depot is on the east (South Bend) side of the section – thus the street section had to stay!

Other problems with the Michigan City route were its sharp bends, blind corners and steep hills. It was a fascinating route to say the least, and certainly it was much admired by rail enthusiasts – but in terms of safety and interaction with highway users, it was no longer a terribly good idea. Nevertheless it remained in use until 2022 when work finally began to build a better route for the line.

For quite sometime the authorities had sought ways to remove this problematic section and varying ideas were put forward. A completely new route through the city was proposed which would have involved demolition of a large number of properties. That idea didn’t sit well with the residents of Michigan City. Hence the radical solution now being implemented is to give the trains the automobile space entirely!

Michigan City. This long established section of street running has now ended. The church was demolished in 2012-22 to make way for the new rail alignment. Source: Twitter.

Current total length of the line is 90 miles (140km.) It will be 98 miles once the West Lake route is completed, but perhaps somewhat shorter again after the route to South Bend airport is put onto a new and shorter alignment. However that could well increase again if plans to build a new section into downtown South Bend are realised.

New plans for the South Shore:

The Double Track NWI (North Western Indiana) project logo.

In 2005 debate began on the issue of the line through Michigan City. Initial proposals were for an entirely new route off street through the city, however that wasn’t greatly appreciated because of the number of demolitions that was required. In a completely radical move it was then decided instead to give the trains their own right of way. This has ensured a lesser amount of demolition and land purchases that would be necessary – as well as preserving the time honoured railroad stops in Michigan City. Whatever plans were ultimately chosen, there was no doubt certain property demolitions were unavoidable. It was nevertheless deemed necessary to upgrade the route for a number of reasons. ‘Maintaining safe operating conditions becomes more difficult and costly as infrastructure degrades. In Michigan City, unprotected at-grade crossings and embedded, street-running track create safety concerns for passengers, freight users, pedestrians, cyclists, and automobiles sharing the same travel space.’

Currently its quicker by automobile – around ten to fifteen minutes from both Michigan City and Gary. What the project also aims for is quicker times by rail and the upgrades will certainly ensure that because as much as half an hour or more will be taken of the current transit times. ‘The South Shore Line is an important component of NWI’s transportation system and double tracking will provide a more competitive transportation option between NWI and Chicago. The… improvements will better connect the region by providing faster,more frequent, and more reliable train service.’

Key features of the South Shore Michigan City upgrade plans. Source: Double Track NWI.

I wrote about this unusual move in an earlier post. South Shore Line Michigan City. There are numerous other elements to the Double Track Project – one of these is the full double tracking of the South Shore route between Gary and Michigan City. There are also new deviations that are intended to iron out sharp curves etc, also new bridges, new infrastructure and a lot of new OHLE – evidently its too numerous to detail without considerable plans, documentation and knowledge of the areas in question! However the South Shore Line has some details of those many sites and the work underway here.

It must be stressed that around half of the Michigan City upgrade does involve a dedicated double track section alongside the 10th Street alignment. As the route enters the more built up areas this becomes difficult without necessitating some amount of demolition. Essentially the eastern half of the project entails the railroad gaining a new alignment along the 11th Street section by taking over the space that was formerly for highway users. Thus there are two main characteristics to this interesting development and both couldn’t be more different than the other! The former can be described as a new rail alignment somewhat like an urban tramway whist the latter is something not ever done before – an important urban highway turned completely into a fully fledged railroad!

Meeting in Michigan City Hall to discuss plans for the South Shore line’s upgrade. Source: Twitter.

Once various meetings with the public had been held, the means of acquiring the necessary legislation and funding to enable the works to commence had to be sought. The works would include doubling the track as far as Michigan City, various other upgrades including the improvement of a number of rail alignments to enable faster running. Its not just these – the railway would get a whole brand new route too which would entail a line south from Hammond to Munster/Dyer. The name of the new branch comes from the fact it traverses the West Lake area of Lake County. With that in mind an eventual extension from Munster/Dyer onward to St. Johns would be investigated and procured at some later point.

The West Lake Corridor Commuter Rail Project adds an approximate 8-mile southern branch extension of the South Shore Line to provide direct commuter rail service to the high-growth areas of central and southern Lake County, Indiana. The Project extends south from Hammond, Indiana, to Dyer Indiana. The Project purpose is to increase transportation options for central and southern Lake County residents traveling to downtown Chicago and surrounding areas as well as to South Bend International Airport. The Project will further reduce travel time and costs, and promote economic development opportunities in Lake County. (Source: NICTD Westlake.)

There’s one more project in the making which is not directly linked to the above projects. That is the relocation of the South Shore’s eastern terminus – as mentioned briefly earlier. The present South Bend Airport terminus is poorly located and involves a sinuous route which does nothing to endear transit times. A campaign has been underway to have the terminus relocated and a more direct route enabled. There’s also talk of a new alignment into South Bend itself but that is perhaps a longer term project.

The Little Train That Could… South Shore poster used 1977 to c1983 after it survived previous closure attempts. (Image recreated from various sources.)

Continued in part two.

NICTD Double Track NWI site.

NICTD West Lake Corridor site.