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South Shore Line looks to run shuttles from Michigan City to South Bend airport

Planned EV battery plant could result in new station in New Carlisle

Riders rush to board the train at the South Bend International Airport station. Photo: Igor Studenkov

This post is sponsored by Ride Illinois.

As work to double-track the South Shore Line between Gary’s Miller neighborhood and Michigan City's Uptown district is wrapping up, the Chicago-Indiana commuter railroad is looking into service improvements further east.

On February 28, there was a meeting of the Sandhouse Rail Group, a networking group established by the Northwestern University Transportation Center to connect railroad professionals with students and academics. Metra executive director Jim Derwinski and his South Shore Line counterpart Mike Noland talked about what’s on the horizon for commuter rail serving Chicagoland.

While Streetsblog already covered Derwinski’s presentation on speeding up the Metra Electric Line, Noland’s presentation had some newsworthy nuggets, too. He said that the South Shore Line is making plans to run express shuttle trains between the new Michigan City 11th Street station and the South Bend International Airport, the line’s current eastern terminus. The shuttles would make the trip within 30 minutes, down from almost 50 minutes under the current schedule.

 In a follow-up interview, Noland clarified that this would be contingent on another major capital project. The railroad currently uses a single-track half-loop to reach the east side of the airport. The South Shore Line Airport Realignment project calls for building a brand new set of tracks to reach the west side of the airport. Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (the agency that runs the South Shore Line) previously indicated that the change would shave 13-15 minutes off South Bend-to-Millennium Park trips. That's because the current tracks are longer, and the train has to slow down because of the current track alignment and multiple at-grade crossings.

The current route to the South Bend airport, and the proposed alignment. Image: NITCD

Noland told Streetsblog that the shuttles will run once an hour – up from the current headways of anywhere between 2 and 4 hours.  And earlier during the meeting, he talked about possibly building another branch that would go to downtown South Bend – something the city has been advocating for decades – once the track relocation is finished.

"The actual alignment that an extension to downtown South Bend has not yet been selected and would be part of the engineering and environmental process for this project," Noland said. But he noted that the 2019 City of South Bend study called for new tracks to be built north of the embankment that carries Norfolk Southern, reaching the historic South Bend Union Station. As the South Bend Tribune reported back in 2021, that would require the relocation of the Amtrak station and demolishing a soccer stadium and a public housing development.

South Shore Line route map. Image: NICTD

All of this begs the question, what would happen to the Hudson Lake station, the only intermediate station between South Bend and Michigan City? It has the lowest ridership in the entire line, and Noland said that the shuttles would bypass it. He told Streetsblog that NICTD is looking into moving the station to neighboring New Carlisle, which lost South Shore Line service back in 1994. When the railroad studied the relocation six years ago, it found that the ridership wouldn’t increase enough to make it worth the trouble. But with General Motors and Samsung planning to build an elctric vehicle plant near New Carlisle, NICTD is interested in revisiting the proposal.

Streetsblog reached out to the Michigan City, South Bend, and New Carlisle municipal governments to get their perspectives on the service improvements, but none of them responded by press time. 

The Winding Road to South Bend

Under the current schedule, most South Shore Line trains don’t go further east than either the Gary Metro Center station or Michigan City’s Carroll Avenue stop. But there is already precedent for Michigan City-to-South Bend service. On weekdays, the railroad runs two Carroll Avenue-to-South Bend trains early in the morning and two South Bend to Carroll Avenue trains late in the evening. Only five eastbound trains and four westbound trains run from end to end.

On weekends, the South Shore Line runs two Carroll Avenue-to-South Bend trains in the early morning, and only five trains run end-to-end in each direction.

The railroad used the street-running tracks to reach downtown South Bend until 1970, when the line was truncated to what is now the city’s Amtrak station. The station was relocated to the airport in 1992. 

South Bend's Union Station, where the city suggests the the line might go. Photo: Igor Studenkov

The problem is that South Shore Line used a single-track freight spur that was never meant for passenger trains. It mostly runs along the side of the street, sometimes between the road and the sidewalk. 

In 2017, NICTD began discussing building brand-new tracks along Oak Street and Lincolnway West, which would mean fewer rail crossings and a shorter, more straightforward route. South Bend’s then-Mayor Pete Buttigieg and some local corporations urged the railroad to move the station closer to downtown instead. The city studied several locations, but South Shore Line kept pushing to keep the station at the airport.

In December 2022, NICTD contracted Chicago-based DLZ engineering firm to do the studies necessary to apply for federal funding. Noland told Streetsblog that the railroad hopes to complete the relocation by 2026, with the goal of getting the airport express running by 2027.

The slide at the Sandhouse meeting showing a potential line to downtown South Bend in blue, with the relocated airport access track marked in red. Photo: Igor Studenkov

During the Sandhouse meeting, Noland said that with the faster travel times, "We expect we’re going to quadruple ridership in that region."

Noland said that airport rail express shuttles would run between 11th Street and South Bend nonstop, taking advantage of the former’s high-level platform to speed up boarding. He added that the South Bend station location isn’t necessarily an either-or proposition. In what he described as "Phase 2" of South Bend service changes, the railroad would continue toward downtown. They would build a platform at the spot where the new airport-bound track would split off, and riders would be able to "jump into a two-car shuttle" to reach the airport. 

New Carlisle station

The unincorporated community of Hudson Lake and the town of New Carlisle are located on the opposite sides of County Line Road, the dividing line between Central and Eastern time zones in that part of Indiana. It usually takes me about 35 minutes to walk from the Hudson Lake station to downtown New Carlisle, though it’s not the safest walk – there are basically no sidewalks to speak of until you reach the latter. Even though New Carlisle is larger than Hudson Lake, when South Shore Line closed several low-ridership flag stops in 1994, New Carlisle's station was the one that got the axe.

South Shore Line train at the current Hudson Lake station. Photo: Igor Studenkov

Noland told Streetsblog that Hudson Lake usually gets "Two to four riders a day." In 2018, NICTD worked with the St. Joseph County government to explore the possibility of moving the town to New Carlisle. "At that time, while the station showed potential promise, there wasn’t a catalyst, or projected ridership opportunity that justified moving the study forward."

That catalyst arrived in June 2023, when General Motors and Samsung announced that they will build a new EV battery plant southeast of New Carlisle. They expect it to employ 1600 workers when it opens in 2026. The plant site at Larrison Boulevard and State Road 2 is far enough from the South Shore Line to require some kind of a shuttle/vanpool arrangement, but the opportunity is there. "We are definitely looking to take another look at a station in this area and will partner with St. Joseph County and New Carlisle on this effort," Noland said. 

New Carlisle’s current comprehensive plan lists a new station location as a major priority. "The town is actively collaborating with the county to explore feasible locations for a South Shore Line train stop, a significant project that promises to enhance regional connectivity and provide residents with convenient transportation options."

The demolished mobile home park St. Joseph County purchased a few years ago as a potential site of the New Carlisle South Shore Line station. Photo: Igor Studenkov

In 2020, St. Joseph County bought an abandoned mobile home park in east New Carlisle, directly behind the local American Legion post, to serve as a potential future site of the town’s South Shore Line station. When I visited it last week, I could see some obvious advantages. There’s enough room for a parking lot and a park-n-ride, and it’s located near the Lincoln Highway underpass beneath South Shore Line and Norfolk Southern tracks. But there are no sidewalks north of the tracks and along most of the underpass. 

Lincoln Highway underpass leaves something to be desired if you’re a pedestrian. Image: Igor Studenkov

One can hope that, if New Carlisle does go with this option, it would improve the pedestrian infrastructure.

Noland said that, since it’s been six years since the last study, "an updated study is likely [to be required]." 

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