Some 400 South
Shore commuters spent five hours stuck on a train in a remote area of track
west of Hegewisch on Thursday, after the early morning’s flash-freeze
overloaded the concatenary wire and pantagraph with ice.
Many hundreds more
commuters, riding on westbound trains behind the stranded train, were forced
to make the return trip east to their home stations. The Northern Indiana
Commuter Transportation District (NICTD) subsequently suspended all service
through the early evening.
director John Parsons told the Chesterton Tribune today that the
first westbound train of the day on Thursday, No. 102, successfully reached
Millennium Station more or less on schedule. The problem began, however,
around 5:45 a.m., in East Chicago, after a sudden drop in temperature, a
flash-freeze, turned the rain which had been falling into ice. That ice
began accumulating not only on the overhead line--the concatenary wire--but
on the pantagraph of the second westbound train of the day, No. 104.
The pantagraph is
the spring-loaded mechanism which draws electricity from the concatenary and
transmits the juice to the engine, Parsons said. By the time No. 104 had
reached East Chicago, the sheer weight of the ice had overloaded the
pantagraph until it lost contact with the concatenary, rendering the engine
powerless. At that point the riders aboard No. 104 were transferred to the
third train of the day, No. 6--the Sunrise Express--and No. 104/6 duly
departed East Chicago.
No. 104/6 made it
as far as a point on the tracks west of Hegewisch when its pantagraph,
similarly burdened by ice, suffered the same fate as No. 104’s did. And
there No. 104/6 remained for some five hours, with 400 riders aboard. “It
was a rough time for the passengers,” Parsons said. “It was a remote area
and the conditions were so treacherous we didn’t want to risk injury to the
passengers by trying to offload them.”
Shortly before 10
a.m., the decision was made to send the westbound trains stuck behind No.
104/6 back east to return the riders to their stations of origin. NICTD then
suspended service. Parsons estimated that as many as 4,800 passengers and
would-be passengers were affected.
In the end NICTD
was forced to dispatch an “ice-breaker”: a diesel engine pulling two cars
whose pantagraphs dislodged the ice in much the same way a motorist’s
ice-scraper cleans a car’s windshield. Limited eastbound service was finally
restored shortly after 5 p.m., Parsons said, with only a single westbound
train running Thursday night. The South Shore was back in full operation
problem, Parsons said, was a breakdown in communications. Those who’ve
registered to receive e-mail alerts from NICTD apparently got them just
fine. Those who’ve registered for text alerts, on the other hand, did not.
That’s because NICTD’s Minneapolis, Minn., contractor sends those texts to
the riders’ various cell-phone providers, where the messages were getting
hung up. “We’re going to spend a lot of time revamping the system,” Parsons
“We did hear from a
number of passengers that staff aboard the trains were generally keeping
people informed,” Parsons added. “But people were becoming very anxious.”
In a statement
released late on Thursday, NICTD General Manager Michael Noland extended his
“sincerest apology to everyone that was affected by today’s service
“To make matters
worse for those of you who were unfortunate enough to be stuck on trains,
our communication was not what it should be,” Noland said. “We need to
provide updates in a timely and informative fashion, and we fell short of
“We will be
conducting an investigation into today’s service disruption to determine
where we can improve our service to you, our customers,” Noland concluded
the statement. “You should expect better performance, including enhanced
communications, from us and we are committed to making this a top priority.
We all know that extreme weather events like that which occurred today will
happen again, and we assure you that we will be better prepared to respond.
Thank you so much for your support of the South Shore Line and for being a
loyal rider of our train.”