The head of the South Shore Line says the commuter railroad’s two big improvement projects are proceeding as scheduled without any delays.
The two projects are double tracking the line from Gary to Michigan City and the West Lake Corridor, an 8.5-mile extension in Northwest Indiana from Hammond to Munster and Dyer.
The double track project is expected to be completed in early 2024, and the West Lake Corridor will be done in early 2025. Both received federal funding with double track getting $173 million and the West Lake Corridor getting just under $355 million.
“Everything is on track, and we’re progressing towards revenue service,” railroad president Michael Noland said.
The railroad is completing real estate acquisition and demolition on both projects, Noland said. Utility relocation work is almost complete on double track and just starting on the West Lake Corridor.
Major construction on both is expected to begin this spring, and Noland said the railroad is set to award a bid for the double track work to Walsh Construction.
To combat supply chain challenges, he said the railroad is planning ahead by purchasing needed materials far in advance in case of delays.
“I’m not going to tell you we’re going to be immune from supply chain issues — nobody in this country right now is immune from supply chain issues,” Noland said. “But for right now, we’ve done a very good job of managing those issues.”
And he said they haven’t faced any hiring issues because there aren’t currently any other major construction projects.
“So, it’s a good time for us to be in the market and using the available skilled labor we have in Northwest Indiana,” Noland said.
The railroad is also working on a major capacity expansion project at Chicago’s Millennium Station to prepare for all the new service, Noland said.
Once both projects are complete, the line will see 26 new round trip trains — 12 on the West Lake Corridor, and 14 from Michigan City or Gary to Chicago.
South Bend currently has five round trips and will get one more per day. Travel time to the Loop will drop to an hour and 45 minutes.
The railroad is currently rehabilitating 32 of their 1982 series cars for the West Lake project and has leased 26 cars from Metra for the double track project.
“Metra is in the process of completely rehabilitating those cars,” Noland said.
And, Noland said, the railroad is continuing to participate in discussions over the location of South Bend’s South Shore Line station.
Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg supported a new downtown station, while St. Joseph County wants a new, relocated station at the airport as part of a new freight rail hub.
“That’s the final lynchpin to getting our service from an hour 45 when we complete double track down to the hour 30 level,” Noland said. “We’re going to significantly reduce travel time no matter which way we go.
After multiple studies, there still isn’t a consensus among local leaders.
If the station remains at the airport, Noland said the South Shore Line will start running shuttle trains from Michigan City, in addition to the six Chicago round trips, to promote use of the airport.
He also said the railroad is seeing increases in ridership numbers and has implemented new sanitation protocols.
“We are ready for our riders when they’re ready to come back,” Noland said.