Putting the ‘South Bend’ back in CSS&SB

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, January 10, 2019

Passengers and a baggage cart are on hand for the departure of a South Shore train from the railroad's depot on La Salle Street in South Bend, Ind. The interurban cars forsook this downtown location for a Spartan station on the west side of town in 1970, then moved to the airport in 1992. Wallace W. Abbey
They don’t call the South Shore Line “America’s last interurban” for nothing. There’s really nothing else in the U.S. that compares. Where else can you find an electric line occupying much of the exact footprint it did in 1908, wearing the same colors it has for perhaps a century (orange and maroon), running past steel mills and through cornfields, and still operating for a substantial distance in the street? Those are credentials of historic proportion.

So when big changes are in the works for the last interurban, that’s news. This time it concerns how and where South Shore passenger trains, operated by the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (NICTD), will terminate on the east end of the railroad, at South Bend, Ind.

The situation in South Bend has been problematic since 1970, first when the Chicago South Shore & South Bend (CSS&SB) moved its terminus from downtown South Bend out to a dreary station on the west side adjacent to the former New York Central Water Level Route (a facility still used today by Amtrak), then in 1992 when the line was extended to the city’s airport. It seemed like a good move at the time, linking up with an airport with major airline connections. Holy intermodalism, that’s what the Europeans do!

It hasn’t quite worked out that way. South Shore trains get to the airport all right, but only after creeping for an agonizing 15 minutes along a circuitous route that takes the trains from their main line through an industrial/commercial neighborhood. After an exhilarating 60-mph ride across the Indiana countryside, you end up watching a liquor store and a Taco Bell go by your window at 15 mph until, finally, after actually traveling westward for a mile, you reach the airport bumping post. This is not state-of-the-art passenger railroading. 

There may be a solution at hand. As reported in the Trains News Wire, the city’s redevelopment staff and the commissioners of St. Joseph County are looking at various options for improving access at South Bend. Four scenarios are being considered, including one that would establish an entirely new and faster alignment to the airport, and another that would allow South Shore trains to return downtown, possibly even to the old Union Station. 

One of four plans to revise South Shore service to South Bend would use the former NYC-GTW Union Station, seen in April 1971, as the interurban's terminal. Philip R. Hastings
The situation in South Bend triggered a flood of memories for me, some of which are South Shore related, some New York Central. Long before the current South Shore’s 11th Street street-running in Michigan City became a celebrated anachronism, there was a similar stretch in South Bend. The big orange cars would roll in off their private right of way on the west side of town by the gigantic Bendix plant, then wend their way down leafy city streets until they ended up on La Salle Avenue.

I remember the first time I saw the scene at La Salle and Michigan Street. I was seven years old and nearly launched myself out of the back seat of the family Ford when we stopped at the La Salle traffic light. There, right in front of the windshield, loomed two immense orange CSS&SB cars, parked in the middle of the street between the elegant old La Salle Hotel and the street-side depot. “That’s the South Shore,” my dad explained. “It’s an interurban.”

I’d never heard that word before, “interurban,” and from that moment forth I was hooked. Traction became a childhood obsession. South Bend was a perfect place to encounter it. In addition to the classic street running, there was a small stub-end yard east from the station across the St. Joseph River, a place loaded with traction flavor. Years later, driving around town as a teenager, I encountered the railroad’s electric freight motors. 

South Bend Union Station, decorated for an art fair in this 1971 view, was a stately place to wait for a train. Philip R. Hastings
The street-running eventually came to an end and the South Shore station was combined with that rudimentary Amtrak depot. The station there remains a great place to witness the endless parade of Norfolk Southern freight trains on the former NYC main line, but as a public accommodation it’s pretty crude. Things improved, I suppose, when South Shore moved to the airport, but only to a small degree. 

My experiences over at South Bend’s Union Station, on the south edge of downtown, also stay with me. Its official name reflects shared service with Grand Trunk Western, but you need only glance at the place to see it as essentially New York Central. The Art Deco monument was built in 1929 to the designs of Fellheimer & Wagner, an architectural firm with credits that include Buffalo Central Terminal and Cincinnati Union Terminal. Early in his career, Alfred T. Fellheimer was at the blue-chip firm of Reed & Stem for the 1903 construction of New York’s Grand Central Terminal.  

South Bend’s station was a pulse-quickening place to arrive or depart by train. Its interior featured a vast waiting room and concourse, its grandeur enhanced by a 50-foot-high barrel vault ceiling running nearly the entire length of the building.

At train time, you’d take the stairs up to trackside where you’d find several tracks equipped with long covered platforms. The backdrop was the huge Studebaker automobile plant. There were always freight trains rumbling through, of course, but you could also witness the daily parade of NYC’s Great Steel Fleet, including the 20th Century Limited, not to mention such GTW delights as the Maple Leaf and the Mohawk.

Perhaps it’s too much to hope for passenger service returning to Union Station anytime soon. Of the four options for South Shore being considered, the one involving the old station is the most expensive, an estimated $100 million or more. The city would have to work out an arrangement with the current occupant, Global Access Point, a data management company. But the city appears to be bullish on the idea, estimating the economic impact at up to $415 million, a substantial boost for a classic old downtown that in recent years has seen modest revitalization.

I’ll keep my fingers crossed. Apart from the obvious aesthetic appeal of using Union Station again, such a move would benefit NICTD, it seems to me. The South Bend metro population is 319,000, and Chicago is only 90 miles away. South Shore’s currently modest schedule of South Bend trains would stand to gain — if only they can get in and out of town faster. 

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