The South Shore Line is a electric railroad that runs a single service1 from Downtown Chicago through northwest Indiana, serving highly industrialized areas, and eventually cornfields and sand dunes, as it approaches its terminus in South Bend. Its unique characteristics often give it the nickname “America’s Last Interurban” among railfans.
The system is composed of one line which is 90 miles2 long, of which 14.53 are shared with the Metra Electric. The line uses 1500 V DC which is not at all common with mainline railroading in North America,4 and operates on a mix of quad, double, and single track, along with having some street running sections in Michigan City. (Although this is not long for the world, with upcoming double-tracking the alignment will be taken off of Michigan City’s streets). The platforms are both high and low floor, leading to accessibility issues.
As for rolling stock the SSL uses 2 types:
- Single level custom EMUs from Nippon Sharyo which were built in 3 waves, with the first coming in 1982, then 1992, and finally 2001. These units are mostly the same except for the fact that the 1982 and 2001 ones are in married pairs, while the 1992 versions have one powered car connected to an unpowered trailer. The single level EMUs have single doors on each end of the cars, which allow access to both high and low level platforms, along with a set of double doors in the middle of the cars that are high platform only, typical of mainline rail commuter cars in the US.
- Nippon Sharyo Highliner IIs, built in 2009, which are EMU gallery cars. The door setup of the Highliners leads to some operational issues, as they have a pair of double doors in the middle that allow access to high platforms only and one single door per car that is dual height (using a trapdoor). The fact that there is remarkably little capacity for low floor boarding leads to most Highliners short turning at Gary Metro Center, as the platforms up to there are all high floor; however they do sometimes go farther to Michigan City and South Bend.
Fares and Schedules
Fares are standard for commuter railroads in North America, in the fact that they are determined by the length that you travel. The line has 11 zones going from zone 1 in Downtown Chicago to zone 11 in South Bend. For most commuter lines in North America, this would be it for the fares section, but the South Shore has an interesting quirk, which is the fact that you cannot buy a ticket from zone 1 to zone 2, as that is on Metra Electric trackage, and Metra is very hellbent on keeping that fare revenue,5 so as a part of the South Shore’s agreement with Metra, passengers are only allowed to exit the train in zones 1 and 2 when en-route to Chicago and when the trains are en-route to South Bend, passengers can only board.
The final quirk of the South Shore is the Hegewisch station, where the fares are set by Metra, and all of the station branding is Metra, although the station is only served by South Shore trains. The station ended up in this situation by falling on the South Shore Line but being inside of the city of Chicago, which put it in the jurisdiction of Metra. As for schedules, they vary, as some short turns at Gary and Michigan City lead to very good frequencies towards Chicago, but places like South Bend have service which is lacking. If you would like to decipher a full time table, see here.
Though for your convenience, here’s the classic Tramreview timetable you always wanted:
|Full Route (EB)6
|Gary Short Turn (EB)
|Michigan City Short Turn (EB)
|Full Route (WB)7
|From Michigan City (WB)
|From Gary (WB)
|1hour 55 min
|1 hour 55 min
|1 hour 45 min
As you can see, this isn’t your average tram, if it were, we’d be screaming at this abysmal frequency, the short turning traffic is more than the full! However, we must also realise this route is 90 miles long, which is somewhat longer than the Belgian Coast Tram (42 miles, considered record holder for longest continuous tram service today). So treating this as a tram and rapid transit isn’t quite fair. If we treat the SSL as commuter rail, the frequency make much more sense, it’s average by most standards and actually quite good by American ones, providing respectable service between Gary and Chicago, and adequate for the full route. By American intercity standards, this is unheard of, but if we measured things by American intercity standards, everything would look like rapid transit.
The line starts at Millenium Station, an underground station, located under Millenium Park.8 Soon after it leaves its tunnel near The Art Institute of Chicago, in to a cut which was created after the Great Chicago Fire. Where the cut lies today used to be far out into the lake where the Illinois Central ran on a trestle in Lake Michigan to approach its Randolph Street terminus. Following the fire, all of the burnt down rubble in Chicago was basically pushed into the lake to create new land and this is where the cut lies today. At this point, the line is in a quad-tracked mainline with room for another 2 tracks. Soon after this, right before the station at 18th street, the line passes the Metra Electric yard where the Metra trains are stored. Before McCormick Place, the line is paralleled by 2 tracks that are used for Amtrak service. Following this the line passes under McCormick Place, the largest convention center in North America, although the station there is notoriously quiet, even during conventions. After this, it continues on a rather standard quad track grade-separated path until the South Shore separates at Kensington 115th, where it continues on its own double-tracked slightly less grade-separated right of way. After Hammond, it goes on to an elevated section next to the Indiana Toll Road. In Gary, the line moves back to ground level and continues on this path through Ogden Dunes. Then, near Mineral Springs road the line moves down to a single track, which is paralleled by the Calumet Trail. The next station on the line is Dune Park station which is located next to the Indiana Dunes State and National Parks. The station also houses the NICTD head office and has high floor platforms. Beverly Shores, the next station, is historically significant as it is the last of the “Insull Spanish” style and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Next up is the quirk that the South Shore is famous for, which is the street running in Michigan City. The street running ends at Carrol Avenue where it gains its own single-tracked right of way. Finally, after a long section in the Indiana countryside with few stops, the line ends at South Bend Airport, falling just short of the center of South Bend.9
The first chapter of the South Shore Line begins in 1901, with the Indiana Air Line Railway which ran a streetcar between East Chicago and Indian Harbor, Indiana. In 1904 the line was reorganized into the Chicago Lake Shore & South Bend. By 1908 they had made it to South Bend via Michigan City. Unlike many interurbans and streetcar lines of the time the South Shore Line was built to what was then the highest of steam railroad standards, which would come to help it immensely in later years.
At this point the electrification was at 6600 V 25 Hz AC, which was a standard sold to the railroad by Westinghouse (one of them at least). This standard would later become a hindrance. As the railroad expanded, a problem arose, as to get to downtown Chicago passengers would have to transfer to an Illinois Central train at Kensington. Later on, around 1912, the railroad made a deal with the Illinois Central to have some non-powered trailer cars be pulled by an IC locomotive to Suburban Station.10
Fast forward to 1924, and the Chicago Lake Shore & South Bend went bankrupt (fun). This is where the industrial tycoon and controller of all of Chicago’s electric railways,11 along with the power companies in Chicago and Northwest Indiana, Sam Insull, came in. After purchasing the railroad, Insull started a complete rebuild of the railroad, with new track, stations, and electrical components. Before he bought the South Shore, Insull knew that the IC was going to electrify their suburban lines at 1500 V DC. Knowing this, Insull switched the SSL to run on 1500 V DC in order to be compatible with the IC track. For the first time in its history the South Shore could finally run all the way to downtown Chicago on its own. With this ridership went through the roof, and the line quickly began to turn a profit.
In 1927 the line started its ad campaign promising fun and nature on the Indiana Shore and at the dunes, creating posters which remain famous in the region to this day. During this time, Insull also brought in limited express service to South Bend, parlor cars, and dining car service. Fast forward to World War Two and ridership went through the roof (again), which led to a need for new rolling stock, but due to the wartime rationing the railroad was not able to get new cars. To solve this problem they took some of the orange cars, cut them in half, and put an extra 17 and a half feet in the middle. So from this point on, there were both long and short cars.
After the war, in 1956, the Indiana Toll Road opened, greatly decreasing ridership on the line. But, as much as the Indiana Toll Road hurt the South Shore’s ridership, it allowed the South Shore to remove street running sections of track in East Chicago. In 1967 the line was acquired by the Chessie System. Soon after the Chessie System took over they began a project to remove the street running to the center of South Bend, in 1970 the South Bend station was shut down and replaced with the new South Bend station located on the edge of town wherein 1971 Amtrak train started running through. in 1976 the Chessie system filed with the Interstate Commerce Commission to remove passenger service from the line. After this announcement, many groups were formed, the most prominent of which was Save Our South Shore, which worked to bring the line under public operation. Soon after this, the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District was set up to run the line. NICTD had hoped to purchase the line but was stopped when the line was sold to the Venango River Corporation. In 1990 the line became the property of the Anacostia and Pacific, and with this NICTD was able to work out a deal with them which allowed NICTD to purchase all passenger assets. Finally, in 1992 the terminus of the line was brought to the new terminal at South Bend Airport way out on the edge of town finishing the final chapter of South Shore moving slowly farther and farther away from the center of town.
The future is bright for the SSL, with many major improvements currently under construction. The first of which is to double track through Northwest Indiana, which will add 17 miles12 of a second track to the line between Gary and Michigan City. This project will also remove the street running sections in Michigan City, speeding up travel times. Right now the trains crawl through Michigan City streets… The double tracking will also allow for more express service, which started in 2015, with trains making the full trip in about 2 hours, compared to 2 and half hours or more on a local. Besides that, some improvements are coming to 5 stations which include, but are not limited to, the addition of high level platforms which will bring high level platforms all the way to Michigan City.
Also in 2020, ground was broken by Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb on the new West Lake Corridor project, which will bring electrified commuter rail to Munster and Dyer. This extension will be 9.1 miles13 long and will be single-tracked with plenty of passing loops and space for a second track to be added in the future. The line will follow the route of the Monon Trail, a rail trail on the route of the Monon Railroad, which traveled between Chicago and Indianapolis. The route splits from the Monon Trail at Maynard Junction, where it will go on a flyover and continue on to a right of way next to the CSX tracks to Dyer. There are talks of eventually expand the line to St John or Lowell when funding becomes available. The operational pattern will start with the trains in peak hours running all the way to Millennium Station, and off peak trains acting as shuttles between Hammond and Dyer with timed connections to mainline trains going to Millennium Station.
Frequency: It’s ok for that the SSL is, by no means is it rapid transit, but it is not trying to be. What it is after all is a quasi-intercity service14 and in that respect, it does very well with 7 or more trains a day to South Bend, 10 trains a day to Michigan City and 20 trains to Gary. These frequencies are very good for intercity rail in the United States (less so for commuter rail, though we’ve seen worse), and with the double-tracking the frequencies are bound to improve.
Fares: They are what you would expect for a commuter railway with zone-based fares, with fares being based on the distance that you travel. The intermodality is not great as NICTD only operates the South Shore Line and is thus not tied in with the Regional Transportation Authority which runs the transit in the Chicagoland region15 and also has no fare integration with the buses in South Bend.
Character: The South Shore line is a remnant of a once expansive network of interurbans in the Chicago region. It very much remains a remnant of a bygone era in which the automobile did not hold a tight grip on rural America. Over time the South Shore Line has evolved into a form similar to electrified commuter rail found in the eastern United States, but with pieces of interurban hidden inside.
The South Shore Line is one of the last of its kind with street running and other common interurban features, but has evolved and gained features more akin to electrified commuter railroads and has even been considered to be an intercity train as seen by the fact that it had the option to join Amtrak in 1971. It is best categorized as Commuter Rail,16 which disqualifies it as a tram, however it’s probably better like this.
We hope you have enjoyed this post, if you have any questions, comments, feedback? please do not hesitate to comment or contact us.
The images have been credited to their respective owners in the caption of each image
Due to the unprofessional nature of this blog, sources will be cited in a simple manner, with no formats yet. Sources used are:
- Website of the South Shore Line
- Double Track NWI
- West Lake Corridor
- Wikipedia on South Shore Line
- (video) “The South Shore Story” – SparkDalmatian on Youtube (narrated and produced by WSBT Reporter Bill Warrick):
- (video) “Riding the Rails of History: The Story of the South Shore Line” – Lake County Historical Society / Do Good Productions