Chesterton Tribune



Ice strands South Shore train for five hours west of Hegewisch

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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.

NICTD marketing 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 today.

Compounding the 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 said.

“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 disruption.”

“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 that responsibility.”

“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.”



Posted 1/13/2017




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