The South Shore and Metra look ahead

Posted by David Lassen
on Thursday, June 9, 2016

A South Shore train approaches Gary Airport station in November 2015. Photo by David Lassen
I made a wholly worthwhile trip to Chicago Wednesday, for presentations to the Sandhouse Gang by Don Orseno, Metra’s executive director, and Mike Noland, general manager of Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, operator of the South Shore Line. They were speaking about the future of the South Shore and Metra Electric operations, and the joint appearance made a lot of sense, given the close relationship between the two operations. (The South Shore, of course, runs on Metra the final 15 miles of its route to Chicago.)

(For those of you unfamiliar with it, the Hagestad Sandhouse Rail Group, to use its formal name, is described on its web pages as an organization “started by the Northwestern University Transportation Center in 2002to connect active and semi-active rail practicioners with students and academics.” While the group usually meets at Northwestern, Wednesday’s meeting was at DePaul’s Loop Campus.)

A few highlights from their presentations:

— NICTD is well along in planning for the West Lake Corridor Project, which would see a new South Shore line running 7 miles south from Hammond, Ind., to Dyer, Ind., using former Monon right-of-way the agency and communities purchased a number of years ago. The current timeline for the roughly $600 million project would see construction begin in January 2020; after 24 months of construction and six months of testing, operations would begin in June 2022. The current projection is that five trains would run from Dyer to Chicago during the morning rush hour, with five returning during the evening rush; in between, shuttle service would connect to trains on the existing South Shore at Hammond, giving the new line up to 24 trains per day. You can learn much more about the project at

— The South Shore is also moving ahead with its $210 million project to add 25 miles of double track between Gary and Michigan City, Ind., which is projected to significantly decrease travel times and will give the South Shore the flexibility to run more express and skip-stop service. South Shore introduced a “Sunrise Express” in March 2015, a limited-stop service that makes the trip from South Bend, Ind., to Chicago in 1 hour, 55 minutes instead of the usual 2 hours, 40 minutes, and that train has proven to be a success. But, as Noland noted, on a single-track operation, the express option only exists at the beginning or end of the commuter rush.

Double tracking could make that 1-hour, 55-minute trip between South Bend and Chicago the standard, cut travel times between Michigan City and Chicago to 65-70 minutes (currently, it’s about 100 minutes), and cut East Chicago-Chicago times from 45 to 30 minutes.

If they can do those things, Noland believes they could double ridership and expand service from 39 to 62 trains a day. Long-term, though, the goal is to do even better and get the South Bend-Chicago time to 90 mintes and time to Michigan City to an hour. (If that happens, Noland says, invest in Michigan City real estate, because with a one-hour travel time to Chicago, the city will take off.)

— On the Metra side, one notable point — especially for regular riders — was Orseno’s note that Metra is studying its fare structure. As any rider is aware, Metra uses zoned fares, with a new zone every five miles from the destination. (On the Union Pacific Northwest line, for example, this means there are 11 fare zones, with prices escalating from $3.50 to $10.50 per ticket.)

“Do we have too many fare zones?” he asked. “Do we have too few fare zones? We have some people, the train of thought is that we should have one consistent fare zone. … That’s what we’re really looking at: what makes the most sense for our system. Maybe it’s the system that we have. I can’t say for sure, but we’re going to study it.”

The study, he said, would look at the possibility of charging a premium fare during peak hours, with the idea that a lower off-peak fare could encourage those with travel flexibility to ride when there is available capacity. The peak fare is already a fact of life on New York’s Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road and Philadelphia’s SEPTA, among others.

— While not directly related to the electric operations, Orseno discussed the success Metra has had with its restructuring of weekend service on the Rock Island district, pointing to it as any example of the kind of change that Metra could make to improve service on the Electric District or elsewhere.

In June 2015, Metra introduced weekend express trains bypassing the stops on the Beverly Branch north of Blue Island, Ill., shaving 20 minutes off travel times. “That has really jacked up our ridership,” Orseno said. Average weekend ridership has increased 9 percent and is outperforming systemwide weekend numbers.

“Can you imagine being able to do that on more trains, on more lines, and being able to knock out travel time, what that’s going to do to impact our ridership?” he said. “And if we have more riders, we don’t need to tax our riders for more fares, especially in areas where we have capacity.”

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