Chesterton Tribune

100 years ago today South Shore interurban began passenger service

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June 30, 1908 passengers boarded inaugural commuter trains between South Bend and Michigan City operating every two hours; later that year round-trip trains were added between Hammond and South Bend.

What would become the Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railroad, a vital link in northwest Indiana passenger and freight operations, was in business.

Three years earlier an electric interurban streetcar operating as the Chicago & Indiana Air Line Railway carried passengers the short trip between Indiana Harbor and East Chicago, changing its name in 1904 to the Chicago, Lake Shore and South Bend Railway with an eye toward expansions to the east and west.

The Lake Shore Line eventually realized its goal, but its subsequent bankruptcy was the first of three that threatened but never derailed the South Shore’s 100-year history.

The passenger side’s fortunes have ranged from a record-high ridership of over 6 million people annually, during World War II’s gasoline rationing and round-the-clock industrial employment, to a threatened total discontinuation of the commuter service in 1976. One year later the Indiana General Assembly created the public Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District or NICTD to save the 90-mile railroad.

Today, the South Shore carries over 4 million passengers a year, a modern-day record, and like its massive revitalization after utility/railroad magnate Samuel Insull purchased the line at auction in 1925 and renamed it the South Shore railroad, NICTD has invested nearly $400 million over its 30 years to rebuild and reinvent it.

Friday the Midwest Railroad Research Center of the Indiana Historical Society hosted a South Shore Line centennial conference at the South Bend Airport highlighting the contribution the railroad has made on a variety of levels.

According to Norman Carlson, president of the Shore Line Interurban Historical Society, “Maybe the best of times for the South Shore is right now. The public is enjoying the most sustained period of growth the railroad has ever had.”

Computerized railroad dispatch, electronic message boards, fiber optic communications and 14 new double-decker commuter cars (the first four Friday passing through the Panama Canal on their way here) are a far cry from vintage hand-crank movies and still photos depicting early South Shore travel on coach, dining and parlor cars which until the 1970s continued to run into downtown South Bend.

In 1992 the city’s terminal was relocated west to the South Bend Airport, leading to a surge of new ridership that’s still holding strong.

Insull’s marketing efforts in the late 1920s led him to partner with and financially support the new Indiana Dunes State Park bringing Chicago tourists and members of The Prairie Club for days of sun, sand and swimming. Others traveled farther east to Hudson Lake, where a casino and dance pavillion were popular, and to the Notre Dame football games still drawing crowds today.

Rail influence early

According to Stephen McShane, archivist/curator for the Calumet Regional Archives at Indiana University Northwest, “(This region) started out a land of sand, steel and rail and we continue to be a land of sand, steel and rail.”

In 1906 horse and mule-drawn wagons were clearing what eventually would be 12 million cubic yards of sand from the Lake Michigan shoreline for U.S. Steel. Inland Steel was the first to be lured here with promises of rail access and 50 free acres of land (20 of them underwater), said McShane, leading to industrialization, immigration, in-migration and the need to move a growing number of people and materials.

“The world was wonderful, we were on top of the world socially, economically, politically, but underneath, trouble was brewing,” according to McShane. Over the coming years workers moved farther away from population centers and existing rail lines, industries began to close and steel mills consolidated, dismissing legions of employees.

The South Shore found itself in the midst of these upheavals. Through many of its leanest years the coal-carrying freight portion of the line offset passenger losses.

Even South Shore president Albert Dudley, who filed a request to discontinue the passenger service as of Dec. 8, 1976 felt the South Shore was a link to well-paying jobs in Chicago, said Dr. George Smerk, former director of the Institute for Urban Transportation at Indiana University and a NICTD board member from 1977 to 2007.

Smerk outlined how Indiana Gov. Otis Bowen, the Save Our South Shore Committee, local elected officials and U.S. Rep. Adam Benjamin of Lake County played key roles in saving the commuter line. Smerk also credited Jim Ranfranz, then deputy director of the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, with eventually convincing the Indiana General Assembly to divert income from longstanding railroad-generated taxes to commuter railroads in Indiana.

Noted Smerk, “There was only one.”

Legislation was signed in 1977 creating NICTD with equal representation from Lake, Porter, LaPorte and St. Joseph counties and Smerk as the governor’s appointment. NICTD’s board of directors since has been expanded to include representation for commuters and railroad employees.

Helping Ranfranz at NIRPC was Gerald Hanas, who was involved with NICTD from its inception and serves as its long-time general manager.

A combination of grants and assistance from Indiana, Illinois and the federal government provided NICTD with money to offset the still privately owned South Shore’s passenger losses and to begin a badly-needed upgrade of the commuter service. In 1982 new train cars began replacing the historic orange CSS&SB models.

Public ownership begins

Dudley’s Chessie System unexpectedly sold the South Shore passenger/freight services in 1984 to Venango River Corp. which by 1989 filed bankruptcy after a brief but acrimonious association with NICTD.

Anacostia & Pacific, associated with regional and short-line railroads, stepped up to rescue the commuter line; A&P purchased the South Shore, then on Dec. 31, 1990 immediately sold NICTD the railroad’s major assets keeping the freight assets for itself.

A&P chief executive officer Peter Gilbertson, chairman of the board of the South Shore freight service, said, “When we came on the scene it was a time of great distress” for NICTD. The resulting relationship between the two was a simplification of something fairly complex, he said, and the terms of their agreement were unconventional at the time.

Mary Jo Dybel, a NICTD employee since 1979, had been waiting at the bank to wire transfer the money to buy the railroad. She had answered a newspaper ad for an accounting position there; today she is the commuter district’s deputy treasurer.

Dybel recalled that in the early days of NICTD’s involvement with the passenger service, “It seemed like there was always a little hurdle, you had to get past this.” She was a regular commuter before she was a NICTD employee, and “seeing it go from the orange cars to the new ones, which really aren’t new now, there was a lot of pride and excitement about seeing that happen.”

There’s also satisfaction in the ongoing infrastructure upgrades, said Dybel. “Replacing the original catenary, the bridges, seeing the railroad get modernized really put it in the consciousness that it’s an important part of transportation.”

Today, Hanas said the passenger service serves the needs of both the commuter and special events/weekend ridership. Wages are higher in Chicago for most segments of the job market drawing passsengers to rush-hour trains, while Chicago festivals like Taste of Chicago, sporting events and cultural activities boost ridership to at times 23,000 people a day compared to 15,000 on a typical weekday.

A challenge has been to rebuild the railroad while still operating it, said Hanas, but the real challenge will come when work begins on single-track sections in the future.

As ridership makes gains in growth areas, key South Shore facilities can’t grow, said Hanas, like the original shops and yards in Michigan City that someday may have to be relocated. The railroad also wants to move its tracks off busy 10th and 11th Streets in Michigan City, and move the tracks at the South Bend Airport to the west in conjunction with a runway extension there.

The most memorable aspect of the railroad during his years has been “the expansiveness of the construction program. Everything we touched we had to be rebuild,” recalled Hanas. “It’s frustrating. We’d like to have it behind us but one gratifying thing is the end is in sight.” After years of negotiation it now appears construction of a bypass track for South Shore use where it joins the Metra rails at 115th Street in Illinois will get a green light.

As for the widely debated proposed $1 billion West Lake extension of the South Shore passenger service to Lowell and Valparaiso from Hammond, that’s been put on hold, said Hanas, after a local financing method stalled and state legislators called for more study.

According to McShane, the West Lake extension “confirms the fact that Lowell and Valparaiso are where the action is and the South Shore knows that and wants to be where the action is, much as the railroad did in the early 20th Century.”

Hanas said he doesn’t lose sight that the South Shore plays a large role in its passengers' daily lives including access to employment, education, medical care and recreation. On-time train performance affects more than statistics.

“Passengers tell us that every time a train is late, especially if they have to get their kids out of daycare. They remind us all the time. There is a huge human performance impact.”



Posted 6/30/2008