The South Shore Line’s shuttle bus service is a bit of a mess

South Shore Line staff at the Gary Metro Center station on August 20, trying to figure out which train passengers should go on what shuttle buses.   Customers going to different stations east of there were eventually directed to different buses. Photo: John Greenfield
South Shore Line staff at the Gary Metro Center station on August 20, trying to figure out which train passengers should go on what shuttle buses. Customers going to different stations east of there were eventually directed to different buses. Photo: John Greenfield

Update 9/7/22, 6:15 PM: Streetsblog reached out to Mike Noland, head of Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, to ask why the South Shore Line is running the separate Loop buses to take passengers between the Dune Park and Carroll Avenue stations, and the Beverly Shores and 11th Street stops, instead of simply having the regular shuttles between the Gary Metro and Carroll Avenue stations make every stop in between. (There’s currently rail service between Millennium Station and Gary Metro, and between Carroll Avenue and the South Bend Airport.)

Noland said South Shore Line actually tried that approach when testing the bus shuttle routes in summer 2021, before rail service was interrupted. But they found that making stops at Beverly Shores and 11th Street added about seven minutes to the trip between Gary Metro and Carroll Avenue, due to the need to get off and on Highway 12, the main shuttle route, to pick up passengers. That made it more difficult to have the shuttle buses mimic the normal train schedules.

He said that even during pre-construction times, SSL trains only averaged 30 to 35 total passengers a day getting on and off at Beverly Shores, and almost no one used the 11th Street stop. Therefore, NICTD decided to take a “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” approach by sacrificing convenient service for the relatively small number of people traveling to from Beverly Shores (and the very few, if any passengers going to 11th Street) in order to save seven minutes for the vast majority of customers. (He suspects that most Beverly Shores residents who commute by rail are currently driving to Dune Park in order to catch the bus/train combo to Chicago.) But the railroad didn’t want to completely cut service to those stations, hence the Loop shuttles.

However, Noland said that he would consider Streetsblog’s suggestion to get rid of the Loop buses and instead have the regular shuttles stop at Beverly Shores, perhaps getting rid of the 11th Street stop altogether. “We’re always looking for ways to build a better mousetrap.”

See more information about the current situation with the Loop buses on the South Shore Line website, and the current theoretical Loop bus schedule below. But keep in mind that, based Igor’s experiences and mine, the shuttles aren’t actually following this schedule, so you shouldn’t rely on it if you’ve got anywhere you need to get to in a timely manner.

Also note that bikes are currently not allowed on the South Shore Line system anywhere east of the East Chicago station.

– John Greenfield, co-editor

The current Loop bus schedule.
The current Loop bus schedule.

Ever since the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District started building a second track for South Shore Line express service between Gary and Michigan City, it’s been using shuttle buses to fill gaps in rail service. And that works out OK – unless you need to get to Beverly Shores or Michigan City’s Uptown district, where the 11th Street station used to be. In that case, your trip may be completely screwed up.

Between February 28 and August 6 of this year, the railroad ran shuttles between the Dune Park station and Michigan City’s Carroll Avenue stop. But if you wanted to get to the two stations in between those stops, Beverly Shores and 11th Street, you had to catch another shuttle called the Loop bus. It was hard to figure out which buses were which unless you asked the drivers. (The Loop bus name seems to have nothing to do with the Chicago Loop, so that adds to the confusion.)

The drivers of the main shuttle buses tried to follow the regular SSL bus schedule, although they didn’t always succeed. But the Loop bus schedules didn’t line up with the train schedules at all, which resulted in absurd hour-long-plus waits between legs of the trip. Things got better after June 27, when the railroad adjusted the Loop bus schedules to better match the train timetables.

Map of The South Shore Line. Image: NICTD
Map of The South Shore Line. Image: NICTD

But after August 6, the shuttle situation got even more complicated. The buses currently run between the Gary Metro station and Carroll Avenue, and will do so through this spring. But if you need to get to Beverly Shores or Uptown, you need to disembark at Dune Park and the catch the Loop bus the rest of the way. Again, the wait between legs can be more than an hour, so it’s hard to believe that anyone would bother to take this ridiculously complex three-seat, multi-hour trip unless they absolutely have no other options.

Does the above information seem really confusing? Don’t worry, South Shore Line employees don’t really understand it either. During the past few months of riding the train, one constant I encountered was that the ticket agents and conductors tend to have only a vague understanding of the Loop bus schedules.

A sign at Millennium Station in downtown Chicago that attempts to explain the bussing situation, but probably just confuses people more. Photo: John Greenfield
A sign at Millennium Station in downtown Chicago that attempts to explain the bussing situation, but probably just confuses people more. Click to enlarge. Photo: John Greenfield

[During a recent trip to the Indiana Dunes, a ticket agent basically told me that trying to get to the Beverly Shores stop was a fool’s errand due, so I altered my plans and took a single shuttle bus from Gary Metro to Dune Park instead. -Ed]

The logistics of double-tracking

As you’d figure, double-tracking project mostly involves building a second set of tracks. But it also includes reconstruction of several sections of existing tracks. Notably, the railroad is turning the tram-like street-running track section in Michigan City’s Uptown into something more akin to what the Metra Electric District line’s looks like on 71st Street in Chicago’s South Chicago neighborhood. While the old 11th Street stop was basically a glorified bus shelter, this location will be getting a full-fledged station with platforms.

As of September 3, 2022, Beverly Shores has two tracks, and new platforms are being built on both sides. Photo by Igor Studenkov
As of September 3, 2022, Beverly Shores has two tracks, and new platforms are being built on both sides. Photo: Igor Studenkov

On March 31, 2021, the South Shore Line stopped serving the 11th Street station, but riders could still reach Uptown by either catching Michigan City Transit’s Route 3 bus line from the Carroll Avenue station, or taking Amtrak’s Wolverine service from Chicago’s Union Station, which stops at the north end of Uptown.

On February 28, the work got far enough along to require the Dune Park to Carroll Avenue section to be taken out of service entirely. The Loop bus stopped in Uptown, near the intersection of 10th and Franklin streets, and at the Beverly Shores station parking lot. The shuttles ran about once every 90 minutes in each direction seven days a week.

Catching the shuttles

On March 5, I tried to take the Loop bus to Michigan City’s Uptown. I made the mistake of simply telling a bus driver I wanted to get to Michigan City, and accidentally wound up on the express bus to Carroll Street. I ended up hoofing it from Carroll Street to Uptown. However, I attempted to catch the Loop bus back. I went to the 10th/Franklin intersection to catch the 4:32 p.m. Loop bus and waited 15 minutes after that, but it didn’t show up.

I ultimately took a Michigan City Transit bus back to Carroll Avenue and caught the departing westbound express shuttle bus there. As we rode back, I asked the bus driver about the Loop bus schedule, and his response was an apologetic shrug. “There isn’t really a schedule.”

Express shuttle at Carroll Avenue station on March 3. Photo: Igor Studenkov
Express shuttles at the Carroll Avenue station on March 3. Photo: Igor Studenkov

On Memorial Day, I decided to open the beach season in style by heading to Beverly Shores, where the station is a scenic mile-long walk to Lake Michigan. I thought I was more prepared this time. One of the ticket agents at Millennium Station warned me that I might have to wait an hour or two for the Loop bus to take me 4.5 miles from Dune Park to Beverly Shores. I talked to the conductors, who admitted they weren’t sure what was going on with the Loop bus, except that I might have to wait a couple hours.

But I got lucky. When the first bus I rode dropped me off at Dune Park, the driver pointed me to a Loop bus that was waiting behind all the express shuttles. The Loop bus left right after the express shuttles did, getting me to Beverly Shores without any issues. So far, so good.

But on the way home I was not so fortunate. I planned to catch the westbound Loop bus scheduled to stop at Beverly Shores at 6:11 p.m. But as 10 minutes, then 20, then 30 minutes passed, and I watched multiple express buses race by, I became, to put it mildly, concerned. I thought I caught a break at around 7:00 p.m., when one of the express bus drivers pulled into the nearby gas station to get a snack, but that driver said he had no idea what was going on with the Loop bus, and he couldn’t help me.

I was about ready to start walking the several miles to Dune Park when a bus driver pulled into the station. To his credit, the operator apologized, saying that Loop bus drivers are sometimes asked to help out with express shuttle service, and during the shuffle he forgot about making the Beverly Shores stop. In subsequent conversations with express bus drivers, they told me not many people used the Loop buses. Gee, I wonder why?

On June 27, the South Shore Line released the new Loop bus schedules. The departure times were more aligned with train arrival times, which led to different weekday and weekend schedules. Instead of making all stops, most weekend buses skip Uptown, and some evening buses don’t go past Beverly Shores. Riders heading to Uptown still have Michigan City Transit buses as an alternative. But after Amtrak quietly closed its Michigan City station in April, they have fewer Sunday/evening transit options. On the bright side, from what I’ve seen, the Loop bus drivers followed the schedules fairly closely.

A shuttle bus at Dune Park. Photo: Igor Studenkov
A shuttle bus at Dune Park. Photo: Igor Studenkov

The Gary-Carroll shuttle transfers

On August 6, the South Shore Line added another wrinkle. With the railroad building a new station and realigning tracks in Gary’s Miller neighborhood, the shuttles now run from Gary Metro to Carroll Avenue. Depending on the passenger load, they may make local stops or run express. But if you want to get to Beverly Shores or Uptown, you still need to catch the Loop bus, which continues to run on the June 27 schedules.

I saw the downsides of this approach when I went to Beverly Shores on September 3. The express shuttle I took from Gary arrived at Dune Park around 10:05 a.m., but the next Loop bus wasn’t scheduled to arrive at Dune Park until 12:10 p.m. There were about ten people waiting, and most of them either called friends or family to pick them up, or else used ride-hail out of frustration.

In retrospect, those riders could have taken the express to Carroll Avenue, caught the 10:36 a.m. westbound Loop bus then got off at Uptown or Beverly Shores, but none of the South Shore Line staff or bus drivers mentioned that was an option.

South Shore riders I recently spoke with either use the Carroll Avenue station or travel all the way to South Bend, the eastern terminus of the line. Aside from a few minutes’ delays, they had no issues. “It’s been pretty good,” said Steven Johnson, normally takes the train to the Carroll Avenue station. “No delays or anything like that.”

Using a skyway to transfer between shuttle buses and trains at Gary Metro. Photo: John Greenfield
Using a skyway to transfer between shuttle buses and trains at Gary Metro. Photo: John Greenfield

Another rider named Sam said she usually takes the train all the to South Bend. She said that her one big issue was when the elevator at the Gary Metro Center was out of service, forcing her to use the steep stairs that lead to the bus level. “It’s not much different [from the trains.] The most they got delayed was five or minutes. I’m looking forward to [double-tracking] getting done – I think the service will be much better.”

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