By PAULENE POPARAD
June 30, 1908 passengers boarded inaugural commuter trains between South Bend
and Michigan City operating every two hours; later that year round-trip
trains were added between Hammond and South Bend.
What would become the Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railroad, a vital
link in northwest Indiana passenger and freight operations, was in business.
Three years earlier an electric interurban streetcar operating as the Chicago
& Indiana Air Line Railway carried passengers the short trip between Indiana
Harbor and East Chicago, changing its name in 1904 to the Chicago, Lake Shore
and South Bend Railway with an eye toward expansions to the east and west.
The Lake Shore Line eventually realized its goal, but its subsequent
bankruptcy was the first of three that threatened but never derailed the
South Shore’s 100-year history.
The passenger side’s fortunes have ranged from a record-high ridership of
over 6 million people annually, during World War II’s gasoline rationing and
round-the-clock industrial employment, to a threatened total discontinuation
of the commuter service in 1976. One year later the Indiana General Assembly
created the public Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District or NICTD
to save the 90-mile railroad.
Today, the South Shore carries over 4 million passengers a year, a modern-day
record, and like its massive revitalization after utility/railroad magnate
Samuel Insull purchased the line at auction in 1925 and renamed it the South
Shore railroad, NICTD has invested nearly $400 million over its 30 years to
rebuild and reinvent it.
Friday the Midwest Railroad Research Center of the Indiana Historical Society
hosted a South Shore Line centennial conference at the South Bend Airport
highlighting the contribution the railroad has made on a variety of levels.
According to Norman Carlson, president of the Shore Line Interurban
Historical Society, “Maybe the best of times for the South Shore is right
now. The public is enjoying the most sustained period of growth the railroad
has ever had.”
Computerized railroad dispatch, electronic message boards, fiber optic
communications and 14 new double-decker commuter cars (the first four Friday
passing through the Panama Canal on their way here) are a far cry from
vintage hand-crank movies and still photos depicting early South Shore travel
on coach, dining and parlor cars which until the 1970s continued to run into
downtown South Bend.
In 1992 the city’s terminal was relocated west to the South Bend Airport,
leading to a surge of new ridership that’s still holding strong.
Insull’s marketing efforts in the late 1920s led him to partner with and
financially support the new Indiana Dunes State Park bringing Chicago
tourists and members of The Prairie Club for days of sun, sand and swimming.
Others traveled farther east to Hudson Lake, where a casino and dance
pavillion were popular, and to the Notre Dame football games still drawing
Rail influence early
According to Stephen McShane, archivist/curator for the Calumet Regional
Archives at Indiana University Northwest, “(This region) started out a land
of sand, steel and rail and we continue to be a land of sand, steel and
In 1906 horse and mule-drawn wagons were clearing what eventually would be 12
million cubic yards of sand from the Lake Michigan shoreline for U.S. Steel.
Inland Steel was the first to be lured here with promises of rail access and
50 free acres of land (20 of them underwater), said McShane, leading to
industrialization, immigration, in-migration and the need to move a growing
number of people and materials.
“The world was wonderful, we were on top of the world socially, economically,
politically, but underneath, trouble was brewing,” according to McShane. Over
the coming years workers moved farther away from population centers and
existing rail lines, industries began to close and steel mills consolidated,
dismissing legions of employees.
The South Shore found itself in the midst of these upheavals. Through many of
its leanest years the coal-carrying freight portion of the line offset
Even South Shore president Albert Dudley, who filed a request to discontinue
the passenger service as of Dec. 8, 1976 felt the South Shore was a link to
well-paying jobs in Chicago, said Dr. George Smerk, former director of the
Institute for Urban Transportation at Indiana University and a NICTD board
member from 1977 to 2007.
Smerk outlined how Indiana Gov. Otis Bowen, the Save Our South Shore
Committee, local elected officials and U.S. Rep. Adam Benjamin of Lake County
played key roles in saving the commuter line. Smerk also credited Jim
Ranfranz, then deputy director of the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning
Commission, with eventually convincing the Indiana General Assembly to divert
income from longstanding railroad-generated taxes to commuter railroads in
Noted Smerk, “There was only one.”
Legislation was signed in 1977 creating NICTD with equal representation from
Lake, Porter, LaPorte and St. Joseph counties and Smerk as the governor’s
appointment. NICTD’s board of directors since has been expanded to include
representation for commuters and railroad employees.
Helping Ranfranz at NIRPC was Gerald Hanas, who was involved with NICTD from
its inception and serves as its long-time general manager.
A combination of grants and assistance from Indiana, Illinois and the federal
government provided NICTD with money to offset the still privately owned
South Shore’s passenger losses and to begin a badly-needed upgrade of the
commuter service. In 1982 new train cars began replacing the historic orange
Public ownership begins
Dudley’s Chessie System unexpectedly sold the South Shore passenger/freight
services in 1984 to Venango River Corp. which by 1989 filed bankruptcy after
a brief but acrimonious association with NICTD.
Anacostia & Pacific, associated with regional and short-line railroads,
stepped up to rescue the commuter line; A&P purchased the South Shore, then
on Dec. 31, 1990 immediately sold NICTD the railroad’s major assets keeping
the freight assets for itself.
A&P chief executive officer Peter Gilbertson, chairman of the board of the
South Shore freight service, said, “When we came on the scene it was a time of
great distress” for NICTD. The resulting relationship between the two was a
simplification of something fairly complex, he said, and the terms of their
agreement were unconventional at the time.
Mary Jo Dybel, a NICTD employee since 1979, had been waiting at the bank to
wire transfer the money to buy the railroad. She had answered a newspaper ad
for an accounting position there; today she is the commuter district’s deputy
Dybel recalled that in the early days of NICTD’s involvement with the
passenger service, “It seemed like there was always a little hurdle, you had
to get past this.” She was a regular commuter before she was a NICTD
employee, and “seeing it go from the orange cars to the new ones, which
really aren’t new now, there was a lot of pride and excitement about seeing
There’s also satisfaction in the ongoing infrastructure upgrades, said Dybel.
“Replacing the original catenary, the bridges, seeing the railroad get
modernized really put it in the consciousness that it’s an important part of
Today, Hanas said the passenger service serves the needs of both the commuter
and special events/weekend ridership. Wages are higher in Chicago for most
segments of the job market drawing passsengers to rush-hour trains, while
Chicago festivals like Taste of Chicago, sporting events and cultural
activities boost ridership to at times 23,000 people a day compared to 15,000
on a typical weekday.
A challenge has been to rebuild the railroad while still operating it, said
Hanas, but the real challenge will come when work begins on single-track
sections in the future.
As ridership makes gains in growth areas, key South Shore facilities can’t
grow, said Hanas, like the original shops and yards in Michigan City that
someday may have to be relocated. The railroad also wants to move its tracks
off busy 10th and 11th Streets in Michigan City, and move the tracks at the
South Bend Airport to the west in conjunction with a runway extension there.
The most memorable aspect of the railroad during his years has been “the
expansiveness of the construction program. Everything we touched we had to be
rebuild,” recalled Hanas. “It’s frustrating. We’d like to have it behind us
but one gratifying thing is the end is in sight.” After years of negotiation
it now appears construction of a bypass track for South Shore use where it
joins the Metra rails at 115th Street in Illinois will get a green light.
As for the widely debated proposed $1 billion West Lake extension of the
South Shore passenger service to Lowell and Valparaiso from Hammond, that’s
been put on hold, said Hanas, after a local financing method stalled and
state legislators called for more study.
According to McShane, the West Lake extension “confirms the fact that Lowell
and Valparaiso are where the action is and the South Shore knows that and
wants to be where the action is, much as the railroad did in the early 20th
Hanas said he doesn’t lose sight that the South Shore plays a large role in
its passengers' daily lives including access to employment, education,
medical care and recreation. On-time train performance affects more than
“Passengers tell us that every time a train is late, especially if they have
to get their kids out of daycare. They remind us all the time. There is a
huge human performance impact.”