Looking Again at South Shore Expansion

So now the on-again, off-again expansion of the South Shore Line to Valparaiso seems to be on again, even if one of the so-called supporters seems to want to put up a ballot to dismantle the South Shore LIne instead of expand it.

Problem is, now they’re reconsidering all the plans again, including a plan to split the South Shore from Gary instead of Hammond or in Illinois.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

First, here’s the “favored” expansion plan, going from Hammond/Hegewisch to Munster, then Valpo/Lowell:

Route through Munster, with second line to Lowell

It was the running plan, in part because of the NICTD’s ownership of a right-of-way from Hammond to Munster. It also has the possibility of expanding service to the southern part of Lake County, with benefits spreading into Illinois. Also, many of the proposed rail stops along the line would actually be open to transit-friendly development, allowing for the ability of the line to survive on its own, instead of just a commuting line to and from Chicago.

Its main disadvantage is that it runs over the main Canadian National (CN) line, which can see over forty trains a day. CN wants the Northwest Indiana Transit Authority to pay for a third rail line along the CN portion of the route, and at over $1 million/mile, it won’t come cheap.

Now, here’s a new plan/answer: run along the little-used Chicago Fort Wayne and Eastern line from Gary to Valparaiso

Chicago to Valparaiso via Gary

The positives of this plan include:

  1. It would be much easier to build on this line than on the GTW line. You wouldn’t have to worry about adding on a third line or forty long freight trains/day. One could easily put a second line on the ROW, as it was once a doubled track. You could even electrify the track, as much of the line does only one or two trains a day.
  2. One could set up a central station at the Gary Airport, or use the East Chicago station. No real need to remake the Hammond Station (or use the Hegewisch station in Illinois, further deepening the backwater reputation of Northwest Indiana).
  3. The Liverpool stop could revive that area. Wheeler could boom with transit-friendly development (and would actually be well-placed, with both rail line and IN-130 allowing for easy transport between Hobart and Valparaiso). And Hobart would get a train station and some transit.

The negatives of this plan include:

  1. The area served by train transit is shrunken down to a subset of what would be served by using the GTW line. Instead of serving the whole area, we now have part of the eastern side of Lake County and Porter County to Valparaiso.
  2. Much of the area, while it has some development, would have trouble developing transit-oriented development. One could more easily plan for sizable transit-friendly development along the GTW line.
  3. The Hammond-Munster line (as well as the plan to Lowell) becomes moot and useless. As it sits now, it needs construction either along other companies’ ROW or costly construction between downtown Hammond and the Hammond South Shore Station. Using the Chicago Fort Wayne line makes this line useful only for Bus Transit (if at all).
  4. Probably the biggest drawback to the Chicago Fort Wayne plan AS IT STANDS NOW is that it mistakes Valparaiso as the sole goal of mass transit expansion. The fact is, we need to extend transit over the whole of the area, and even with the advantages the CFW line gives, it works more as a restriction on what could develop.

Now I wouldn’t mind if the CFW line would actually extend into East Chicago and Whiting/Hammond and up the line to Chicago. The Whiting/Hammond Amtrak station is underused, and this line would serve areas now badly underserved by transit of any kind. However, with the presently planned joining of the lines in Gary near 5th and Chase, the rump line does little of what it could do.

However, there’s a third possibility I would like people to consider: The Griffith/Hobart cutoff:

A third possibility for the new line

Advantages of this third possibility:

  1. Serves the whole area that is intended by the Main option, while avoiding the excess costs of tripling most (if not all) of the Main CN line.
  2. Can also be expanded to Lowell with minimal extra cost
  3. Actually comes near population centers (Griffith, Hobart, Wheeler) while also allowing for some transit-oriented development (Griffith, Wheeler, Gary/Merrillville).
  4. If the CN purchase of the EJ&E succeeds, the third line will not be needed alongside the Munster-Griffith portion of the CN main line.

Disadvantages:

  1. It would require a bridge over the EJ&E line going through Griffith to remove a major bottleneck for the South Shore new line. This would make it much less likely that the intersection would be built in Hammond (budgetary concerns).
  2. The line between Griffith and Hobart would have to be rebuilt. It’s now a bike path, and there’s even some infrastructure built to support the bike path that might have to be removed to support the South Shore Expansion
  3. The underpass at I-65 might be too costly to build, thanks to recent construction built with the eye towards removing “a useless bridge” a few years ago. I understand why they would want to rebuild the roads over no-longer-existent railroads so that no bridge was needed – it makes sense to reduce the number of bridges you need to keep up. However, in this case it might make a transit expansion possibility too costly to go through with.

So why should they pick this version over the other two?

It serves the whole of the area (not just a subset), is closer to population centers (Hobart and Wheeler especially, although Gary/Merrillville also counts), Lowell remains a possible expansion, and a lesser (or no) need to try to fit one’s self within the CN footprint.

I just hope there can be enough money to make it happen.

(and yes, possibilities four and five include not building at all (#4) and tearing down the South Shore Line right now online (#5). While both are more likely than expansion, I’m not supporting either of these possibilities.)
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