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Goodbye street-running South Shore service in Michigan City, hello double-tracking

The last westbound street-running train out of Michigan City’s 11th Street station. Photo: Igor Studenkov

Friday, April 30, marked the end of an era for the city of Michigan City, Indiana. For over 100 years, South Shore Line passenger trains traveled, streetcar-like, in the middle of the street through the city center, dropping off passengers in the middle of the road at the 11th Street station. The setup dates back to the line’s origin as an interurban train, something of a tram-commuter train hybrid that treveled on the streets in some areas and on a separate right of way in others. The line used to have several street-running sections, but Michigan City section outlasted all the others.

On May 1, the station was closed to allow the North Indiana Commuter Transportation District, which runs the South Shore, to ramp up work on turning that section into something that looks more like a commuter railroad, with two tracks on separate rights of way. The stop will get wheelchair-and-bike-friendly high-level platforms and a new station house.

The project is part of the larger effort to double-track the single-track sections of the line between Gary and Michigan City, which is expected to shave 30 minutes off travel time and allow the railroad to run more frequent service. Michigan City has been working to redevelop its central Uptown area into an arts district, and faster train service to Chicago has been one of its major priorities.

The station is expected to remain closed for the next 1-2 years. The South Shore Line will still stop at the Carroll Avenue station at the south end of the city, and riders will be able to reach Uptown using Michigan City Transit’s Route 3 buses.

But it will be the first time in living memory that a South Shore line train didn’t stop in Uptown. I was among the many transit enthusiasts who made their way to 11th Street station on April 30 to mark the occasion.

Rain fans waiting for the train to arrive. Photo: Igor Studenkov
Rain fans waiting for the train to arrive. Photo: Igor Studenkov
Rain fans waiting for the train to arrive. Photo: Igor Studenkov

11th Street Station

The South Shore Line started serving Michigan City in 1908. The 11th Street station, located between Franklin and Pine streets, opened in 1927. The two-story station house has been closed since 1987, but  NICTD built a passenger shelter at the northwest corner of 11th and Pine, so waiting customers weren’t completely exposed to the elements.

Having grown up St. Petersburg, Russia, which had the largest tram network in the world until the mid-2000s, I have a soft spot for anything tram-like. The South Shore Line feels like a  reversed version of St. Petersberg's tram Route 36, which operates like standard tram in older parts of the southwestern portion of the city, but becomes more and more commuter train-like (with separate rights of way, higher speeds and fewer stops) as it goes through the newer parts of the city and the suburbs. There is just something wonderfully surreal when the lines between two modes of transportation blur, and it makes for great photos.

The 11th Street station is great in terms of walkability, putting riders within steps of Uptown shops, galleries and restaurants, the Lighthouse Place Premium Outlets mall, cultural institutions such as Lubeznik Center for the Arts, all Michigan City Transit bus routes, and the Washington Park beach.

But anyone who ever rode the South Shore Line in Michigan City also experienced the downsides. The trains slow down to 10-25 miles per hour when they run on the street, and the lack of sidings within city limits can cause delays The street-running set-up isn’t friendly to people with disabilities, or anyone trying to load their bikes onto the trains. (Carroll Avenue station has a lift for wheelchairs, but no accommodations for cyclists.) And NICTD has complained that maintenance of the street-running tracks required the agency to dig up the pavement and repave it again when done, adding logistical issues and costs.

While NICTD and Michigan City considered relocating the line to the existing CSX tracks further south or the Amtrak tracks near the Lake Michigan shoreline, they ultimately decided to stick to the existing corridor because it offered the biggest development potential.

At the 10th Street segment, houses on the south side of the street will be demolished to make way for the two new tracks. 11th Street will be reduced to a single traffic lane, with the rest of the right-of-way used for a pair of open-air tracks (similar to the Metra Electric tracks on Chicago's 71st Street.) 21  intersections, mostly on 11th Street, will be closed.

Rendering of the new station house.
Rendering of the new 11th Street station house.
Rendering of the new station house.

While the old station building will be demolished, the new station house will repurpose its terra cotta. The platforms will be long enough to accommodate eight train cars.

NICTD secured the necessary funding for the project at the start of 2021, and the latest stimulus package included some additional federal funds, which may come in handy, since the project bids came higher than expected.

Last Day of the South Shore Line Street-Running

While the closure was a long time coming, the closing date wasn’t officially announced until April 13. When I heard the news, train buff that I am, I knew I had to be there for the grand finale.

I took the 2:25 p.m. train, which arrived at 11th Street station a little after 4. At least two other rail fans took the same train. As we disembarked, we were greeted by several train enthusiasts snapping photos like paparazzi, to the confusion of other passengers who were just trying to get home.

Many rail fans stuck around at the station, but I decided to walk around, since I might not make it back to Uptown until the station reopens.. Sure, I could take Route 3 in the meantime, but the Michigan City Transit stops operating at 6 p.m., two hours before the last westbound South Shore train, and it doesn’t run on Sundays. Amtrak’s Wolverine route normally stops at Michigan City near the lake, but its schedule was reduced during the pandemic, and Amtrak’s website isn’t currently letting users book a roundtrip through that station.

Mural of artists Frida Kahlo and Jean-Michel Basquiat in the Uptown arts district. Photo: Igor Studenkov
Mural of artists Frida Kahlo and Jean-Michel Basquiat in the Uptown arts district. Photo: Igor Studenkov
Mural of artists Frida Kahlo and Jean-Michel Basquiat in the Uptown arts district. Photo: Igor Studenkov

During my stay, I visited some of my favorite spots like Lakeshore Coffee and SFC Gallery, plus some businesses I’d never visited. Amy Bowman, owner of Good News Vintage, which opened in February, said she was looking forward to being able to reach Chicago more quickly.

As the sun set, I ended up in the beach where I was able to get some photos of Chicago skyscrapers from a unique vantage point.

The Chicago skyline from Michgian City. Photo: Igor Studenkov
The Chicago skyline from Michgian City. Photo: Igor Studenkov
The Chicago skyline from Michgian City. Photo: Igor Studenkov

By the time I returned to 11th Street, the crowd of rail fans had grown. A family with kids had taken the train from the neighboring town of Beverly Shores. After snapping a few last photos, it was time to board a westbound train for home.

The next time passengers disembark at the 11th Street, they will see a brand new station. It will be interesting to come back and see the what the renderings look like in reality. And it will be fascinating to see how the new service will influence development in Uptown, and all of Michigan City.

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