12.2.17

IMPROVING THE SUPER INTERURBAN.

Project managers at the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District have even bigger plans for the South Shore Line.  We update our previous report on the proposed double tracking, Gary to Michigan City, with more ambitious plans onward to South Bend.
The railroad’s operator, the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, wants to make improvements it says would shave up to an hour off the South Bend-to-Chicago trip, taking it from 2½ hours to 90 minutes.

The project, called “Double Tracking NWI,” for northwest Indiana, would include building a second parallel track for a 17-mile stretch between Michigan City and Gary, removing the tracks from streets in Michigan City and eliminating a stop there, and elevating the boarding platform in Michigan City.

With a second parallel track between Michigan City and Gary, the passenger train would no longer need to stop and wait for oncoming freight trains to pass through. Currently, opposing trains must meet at scheduled times to pass one another, and any alterations to these “meets,” whether because of mechanical problems, maintenance or other issues, affects all following trains, said John Parsons, vice president of planning and marketing for the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, which owns and operates the South Shore.
It's the meets of the passenger trains that pose the greatest challenge to timekeeping, as the schedules have historically anticipated both trains reaching the siding nearly simultaneously, otherwise one train has a longer overall running time.  Here's how it works, when all is going properly.


Sheridan siding, Michigan City, Indiana, 13 August 1966.

As I noted in a prior post, "The approaching train is leaving the single track that runs through the middle of Michigan City streets. There are two levels of protection at work here, the red signal and a line in the employee timetable establishing a meet here. Recent South Shore schedules have moved many of the scheduled meets elsewhere, because of heavy passenger loadings affecting the timekeeping, particularly of rush-hour trains."  With two tracks, and direction of traffic running, a late train might delay a follower, but opposing trains proceed on the other track.  Moving the trains out of the streets of Michigan City has been a goal of the South Shore at least since the 1930s.

That 90 minute running time to South Bend also intrigues.  The best scheduled timings are currently the 1 hour 55 minute Sunrise Express, South Bend to Chicago.  The Morning Hot Shot made the same run in 1 hour 52 minutes into the 1950s, making more stops, and adding cars on the head end at Gary to offer local passengers west of Michigan City a faster one-seat ride into Chicago.  Contemporary rules governing inspection of brakes after an add or a cut rule out such schedule cleverness.

The challenge is in the raising of the money, and it appears that local officials have called in enough favors to Make The Interurban Super Again.
It’s been talked about for years but this is the first time the $290 million project seems to have potential support for federal, state and local funding sources. Gov. Eric Holcomb mentioned the project in his recent State of the State speech, and Statehouse Republicans have voiced support for including funding in this year’s biennial budget bill.

Of the $290 million, half would come from the federal government and the other half would be split evenly between the state and equal contributions by the four counties. U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, has been stockpiling the federal authorizations for the project for years, and has finally amassed enough to make state and local matches feasible.

“We’re kind of at the point where we’ve got this perfect storm,” said Mark Catanzarite, St. Joseph County Council member and a member of the 11-member NICTD board of directors since 2003. “Gov. Holcomb and the state legislature are strongly behind us on this.”

Each county would have to pay about $18.2 million for its share of the construction costs. Lake and Porter counties would draw their money from a Regional Development Authority they created 10 years ago, but which St. Joseph County opted not to join.

LaPorte County is looking to obtain its share from property taxes — Michigan City would use tax incremental financing district money, and LaPorte County is considering tapping its major bridge fund, Parsons said.
South Bend is in St. Joseph County, and some of the major improvements there include bringing the electric cars into the airport station by a more direct route. That would mean the end of the funky side-of-the-road running on the current alignment, a former South Shore spur to a gravel pit.  Such connectivity might be of interest to air travelers headed to Greater Chicago who can spend ninety minutes just getting into or out of O'Hare.  The South Bend airport is small but appears to be passenger-friendly.

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