Coordinating Passenger Rail in Northwest Indiana

Northwest Indiana famously hosts one of the most complex rail networks on the planet. As a book I once read (I can’t remember which) argued, the “logical” place for Chicago to have been from a railroad perspective would have been about 30 miles east of its current location, perhaps near Whiting, IN. Instead, with the nation’s rail network divided at the location of an ancient portage, the “Eastern” railroads had to converge in the extreme northwesterly corner of Indiana and make a near-90-degree turn to run into Chicago. The result was a tangled mess of conflicting rights-of-way, industrial tracks, and infrastructure that has only been somewhat simplified by the mergers and consolidations of recent decades.

Two passenger railroads try to pick their way through this mess, with varying degrees of success over the years since the destruction of American passenger service in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The Chicago, South Shore, and South Bend, “America’s last interurban,” now under public ownership as the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (NICTD) operates a relatively conventional commuter service into Chicago, blended with an intercity operation reaching South Bend. Amtrak operates two long-distance trains along Norfolk Southern’s ex-New York Central Chicago line between the East Coast and Chicago, the Lake Shore Limited to New York City and the Capitol Limited to Washington, D.C.; a number of daily roundtrips to points in Michigan that leave the Chicago Line at Porter, IN; and the Hoosier State/Cardinal to Indianapolis (and beyond, three days per week).

schematic 1

Northwest Indiana rail network. Legend applies to all maps in this post.  Apologies for any sloppiness–I’m still learning QGIS–and for the general crappy resolution of the maps (I can’t get WordPress to upload them at anything near full resolution). 

The Northwest Indiana rail network remains seriously congested (as does the entire extended Chicago area), but both the South Shore and Amtrak have begun infrastructure plans that would allow their operations through the area to become speedier and (especially) more reliable. Unfortunately, in typical American railroading fashion, these projects are being planned and executed in a terribly siloed and completely uncoordinated fashion, whereas a degree of sharing infrastructure and cooperative thinking could go a long ways toward speeding trips and cutting down on unnecessary spending. Since Ted asked me why they don’t work together (and I’d actually been thinking about it for a while), here’s my attempt at analysis.

Though it’s more or less been in stasis for 60 years, the South Shore is pursuing an ambitious slate of improvements. The West Lake Corridor would use an abandoned right-of-way to create a branch from Hammond to Dyer; the latter town is currently not directly served by passenger rail. Closing the gaps in double track between Gary and the South Shore’s hub in Michigan City would increase capacity and move the railroad further from its interurban roots. The Michigan City realignment project would move the tracks through that city out of the middle of 10th and 11th Streets–the last place in the country where full-size electric passenger railcars run in mixed traffic, true interurban style, with cars on a city street–and create a dedicated rail right-of-way. Shortening the currently convoluted route to the terminal at the South Bend airport might need some use of eminent domain but could shorten trips by up to 10 minutes. While local and state commitments have generally been forthcoming, federal funding for these projects remains somewhat uncertain.

Meanwhile, Amtrak’s Michigan Line–which is owned by the national carrier from Porter to Kalamazoo, and Michigan DOT from Kalamazoo to Dearborn–has been the target of a gradual improvement process, with running speeds now up to 110 mph along much of its length. Amtrak has also partnered with Indiana and Norfolk Southern on the Indiana Gateway project, a $71 million first crack at decongesting the Chicago Line to benefit both corridor and long-distance trains. All of these improvements exist in some relation to the long-standing multi-partner attempts to “fix” the Chicago rail network, most notably CREATE; Amtrak has contributed a report from its own blue ribbon panel on the Chicago gateway…which concluded that the Indiana Gateway project  “will not increase speeds, or provide capacity for planned additional passenger trains” (p. 20), although it will increase reliability.

Notably, the South Shore and Amtrak efforts, while each ambitious in their own right, have seemingly proceeded completely independently, without any effort to coordinate service or investment. This is perhaps most remarkable given that Amtrak’s Northwest Indiana efforts mainly center around mitigating the impact of–or avoiding entirely–the congested NS mainline and especially the infamous Porter Junction, where the Michigan Line branches off. South Shore’s right of way, meanwhile, intersects with Amtrak routes at several points and avoids Porter entirely. While the South Shore’s capacity is currently constrained by single track, it is actively seeking to undo that constraint, yet lacks money; Amtrak often manages to pull in multi-state political support for a decent amount of funding, but none of the alternatives studied in the South-of-the-Lake Route Analysis involve bringing that funding potential to bear to consolidate trains from both railroads on a double-track South Shore. Indeed, depending on where the connections are made, a joint Amtrak-South Shore route from Michigan City into Chicago could be shorter than the route that trains from Michigan currently take. To the maps!

Assumptions I make in this analysis are as follows:

  1. Both railroads are interested in avoiding as much freight congestion as possible.
  2. The most nefarious and hard to avoid congestion is in Indiana, roughly from Hammond to east of Porter; from the Illinois line to Chicago Union Station, extra room exists on the NS ROW for dedicated passenger tracks, waiting only for funding. (indeed, Amtrak’s Chicago Gateway report says NS has promised access to a dedicated ROW–at cost, of course–from CUS to Buffington Harbor, contingent on Amtrak coming up with the money)
  3. Amtrak values improvements to reliability as well as overall speed.

Long-Distance Trains

Let’s work our way from east to west, or from the perspective of a westbound train. Perhaps the most ambitious way for Amtrak and the South Shore to coordinate would be for the East Coast long-distance trains to transition from the Chicago Line to the South Shore in South Bend, avoiding almost all of the congestion on the Chicago Line. The transition could happen either in South Bend proper (perhaps in conjunction with bringing South Shore service to South Bend Union Station rather than its current terminus at the airport)

sb1

Or perhaps better near the hamlet of Hudson Lake, a few miles west; the lines are completely parallel between South Bend and Hudson Lake, but diverge after that.

hudson lake 1

Now, maybe the single track eastern end of the South Shore can handle two more round trips per day–and trips with less-than-reliable timekeeping, at that–or maybe it would need some capacity enhancements. There might be some clearance issues; while the Lake Shore Limited uses single-level equipment that can operate under catenary, the Capitol Limited runs with Superliners that might be too close to the wires for comfort–and can’t use the high platforms that the South Shore has at many stations. But the point is that in a potential scenario of maximum cooperation, the two LD trains could be diverted to a dedicated passenger track many miles from Chicago; whether the work necessary to make this possible is desirable is not really the focus of this post.

Fixing Michigan City

Let’s face it: there’s very little more fun for railfans or transit geeks than standing on the sidewalk of a small Midwestern city and watching trains rumble down the middle of a residential street (been there, done that; I’m pretty sure even my non-railfan parents enjoyed).

But it’s also antiquated, a massive constraint on capacity, and downright dangerous, which is why the South Shore and the city are in the process of relocating the tracks to a dedicated reservation. That being said, while it’s something of a judgment call, I’m less than fond of the alternative that was ultimately decided upon in Michigan City; I’d rather have seen something like Options 4, 5 or 6 as presented in the Alternatives study, moving the tracks off city streets entirely and onto an abandoned right-of-way that’s currently a trail, with a new central station near Michigan City’s Amtrak station, closer to the lake (it’s not really clear how the study team reached its conclusion, given that their evaluation matrix really shows Option 4 should have been chosen–it costs the same, has greater TOD potential, and eliminates more grade crossings than the chosen Option 1–but I digress). Notably, none of even these alternatives–which all proposed building a station adjacent to the Amtrak one–even considered running South Shore trains on the Amtrak tracks through Michigan City, even though not doing so required more property takings. Sigh.

Anyhow, perhaps the most important link in creating a joint South Shore-Amtrak line is the connection that’s possible just west of Amtrak’s current Michigan City station.

mcity 4

Whether or not the long-distance trains are re-routed onto the South Shore, the Michigan corridor trains can use an upgraded connection through the grounds of the NIPSCO power plant (the tracks are owned by the South Shore) to access the theoretically double-tracked South Shore main toward Gary and Chicago. This is one of the straightest, fastest sections of the South Shore; running largely through a state park, the intermediate stations see little traffic. Where the Michigan trains might switch to the NS alignment is covered below; but sharing the South Shore segment for the 10-15 miles west of Michigan City would eliminate the jog south and then north again that they currently make, as well as avoiding Porter Junction entirely, which is probably worth tens of millions in and of itself.

Western Connections

There are three possible locations for a western connection between the NS/Amtrak alignment and the South Shore main. The easternmost is where the two lines crisscross at Burns Harbor; a connecting track already exists and could be upgraded.

burns harbor 3

The middle is just east of Miller station on the South Shore, marking the point where the Chicago Line and South Shore diverge somewhat geographically. The two lines are parallel and right next to each other and a connecting track would be easy to install, though not already extant.

miller1

The South Shore alignment through Gary is interurban-y; while grade-separated, it’s somewhat twisty and slow, so transitioning back to the Chicago Line at Miller saves time and distance. But as I understand it NS has not guaranteed there’s ROW to be purchased for dedicated passenger tracks this far east; while I’m sure an alignment could be found, given the absolutely massive amount of legacy rail infrastructure in the industrial wastelands between Miller and Buffington Harbor, it might be easier in the short term to keep Michigan trains on the South Shore further west (which would also allow a stop at Gary Metro Center).

The westernmost potential connection point also involves the most infrastructure. The South-of-the-Lake analysis envisions an exclusive Amtrak line branching off the Chicago Line at Buffington Harbor, running south and east along abandoned and underutilized ROW to loop around Gary to its south. Such a loop would pass under the South Shore near Gary-Chicago “International” Airport; connecting there, rather than looping further south (what a truly silly idea the loop is) would be relatively trivial, although there is an elevation difference to be dealt with.

buff1

The Buffington Harbor-Gary Airport connector would subject Amtrak trains to a relatively slow slog through Gary on South Shore trackage, as well as somewhat congesting the busiest part of the South Shore system, and it would require the most new infrastructure (several miles of track). But there is definitely room for dedicated passenger tracks west of Buffington Harbor, meaning that placing the connector here would for sure allow reliable all-passenger running from CUS through to Michigan City and beyond (once funding is found, of course).

Recommended Course of Action

With separate planning, funding, and construction processes proceeding apace, it may be hard to really coordinate Amtrak and South Shore infrastructure improvements to the extent I’m recommending here. And of course I haven’t answered the question of why the two agencies haven’t tried working together; I rather suspect NICTD guards its infrastructure and capacity jealously and doesn’t want to give Amtrak (which wants to ramp up Michigan service to ten round trips per day) a toehold on their main line. But I’m not familiar enough with the local politics to know, exactly.

That being said, the South Shore double-track project is not particularly expensive, will give a solid ROI, and seemingly has a strong local funding commitment. Adding in a connection to the Michigan Line through the NIPSCO plant in Michigan City and a link to the NS Chicago Line at Miller would allow Amtrak corridor trains to bypass Porter and many miles of the congested Chicago Line (although an overlay of Amtrak’s ITCS PTC system might add some costs). Hell, NS might even pay for some of the costs, just to get the Amtrak trains out of its hair. Amtrak should angle to join the double-tracking project; help pay for it; and consider its options for the western end. Probably, Miller makes the most sense for the western connection; but if the various parties can’t find room for passenger tracks between Buffington Harbor and Miller, the westernmost connection option might be more reasonable.

With the core piece in place and protocols for cooperation in place, Amtrak and NICTD can consider whether diverting the LD trains to the South Shore makes sense. The variables are probably too numerous to prognosticate here: whether Superliners can be squeezed under catenary; whether the single-track eastern end of the South Shore has room for more trains without more double track; platform heights and clearance; whether the new Michigan City alignment can accommodate Amtrak trains; and the like.  But it’s at least worth thinking about; while both LD trains are highly unreliable and encounter delays along the entire route, the section between South Bend and Chicago tends to be especially bad.

Addenda

A few further notes:

  1. I’ve treated the Amtrak Michigan trains here as if they all use the Michigan Line, but there’s one that doesn’t: the Chicago-Grand Rapids Pere Marquette, which runs once per day in each direction, diverging from the Chicago Line onto CSX rather than Amtrak’s own trackage at Porter. The Pere Marquette route actually crosses the South Shore just east of the latter’s Carroll Street yard and headquarters in Michigan City, and an interchange track exists for freight. It then crosses the Michigan Line just north of New Buffalo, MI, and should money become available a connection should really be built there, in which case the Pere Marquette would become just another corridor train for the purposes of this analysis (other than the fact that it often runs with Superliners, which would mean platform issues at some South Shore stations…).
  2. Austin brought up the idea of using the planned NICTD Dyer branch to divert Amtrak’s Hoosier State/Cardinal to the South Shore from Dyer into Chicago. These two trains currently encounter a significant amount of their massive delay problems west of Dyer as they traverse dense, congested rail infrastructure like Dolton interlocking. It’s not a bad idea; while somewhat roundabout, running the Indianapolis trains north along the Dyer branch and then along the South Shore/Metra Electric mainline to Grand Crossing would improve reliability considerably, though it would require completion of the CREATE Grand Crossing connection first. Perhaps Austin or I will explore this more in the future.
  3. Running Amtrak’s Michigan trains along the South Shore west of Michigan City would make the Amtrak-owned tracks between Porter and Michigan City redundant; perhaps they’d be retained for emergency diversions, or perhaps the South Shore freight operator could find a use for the line.

 

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