Chesterton Tribune

South Shore passenger service hit by electric rate hikes, recession

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The South Shore’s general manager said Friday the commuter line has tightened its belt in several ways and is hoping that final 2010 indicators are no worse than 2009.

But if they are, come next year passengers might have to share the pain.

Dec. 10 South Shore directors will consider a 2011 business plan for the electric rail service. General manager Gerald Hanas said it will take into account a coming NIPSCO rate increase and higher costs to operate in Illinois, a nearly 4 percent dip in ridership and a $130,000 drop in passenger revenue.

A 2 percent fare hike in each of 2010 and 2011 was approved earlier this year and train schedules were adjusted.

There’s still time for a strong final quarter to end the year on a more positive note, and the railroad has taken steps to cut operating costs by decreasing 2010 overtime by 37 percent and achieving a 7 percent reduction-in-force in contract and management positions.

But John Parsons, marketing director of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District that owns and operates the South Shore, said trains carry only about half the passengers they normally do on planned service-outage weekends east of Gary when aged overhead catenary is being replaced to improve traction power to the trains.

Three outages have occurred and three more --- Oct. 2-4, Oct. 23-25, and Nov. 6-8 --- are planned this year. Year-to-date average weekend/holiday ridership is down 9.4 percent and overall ridership by 103,913 passengers to 2.53 million.

Hanas said one bright spot is $13.6 million in federal stimulus funding NICTD is using to install centralized traffic control signal equipment from Michigan City to South Bend; the project has kept 20 people working using 100 percent U.S. equipment and vendors.

Another project in full swing, reported Hanas, is construction of a South Shore bypass track at the congested Kensington interlocking in Illinois where the Metra commuter line and three other carriers share track. Completion is eyed in spring 2011. The bypass will prevent South Shore trains from being held at the junction.

On another matter, Hanas said although its implementation plan has been approved, NICTD temporarily has on hold a difficult mandate to install a GPS-assisted positive train control system to prevent train-on-train collisions.

Deadline is December 2015 and the cost to NICTD could range from $35 million to $50 million. Hanas said aspects of the PTC system are too experimental at this time to commit to a specific hardware/software configuration and radio system.

PTC was federally mandated nationwide following the deadly 2008 head-on collision of freight and commuter trains in the Chatsworth area of Los Angeles, CA.

In other business, from the audience Richard Watkun asked what the status is of the proposed West Lake extension that would bring South Shore tracks to Lowell and/or Valparaiso. “Has that become a dream that will never happen?” he asked.

Hanas said a stumbling block is no local funding for the project. A new approach could be joint planning on a possible southeast extension of Metra service in Illinois that could save money with a coordinated NICTD project, Hanas explained.



Posted 9/27/2010