A nearly $300 million double tracking project in northwest Indiana is being touted as a win for commuters: it will build a second railroad track for the South Shore Line between Gary and Michigan City, adding speed and capacity for passengers. Capturing fewer headlines, however, is the second track’s impact on freight trains; the rail line is also expected to add muscle to the critical artery for cargo, including the movement of Indiana-made steel.
Michigan City-based Chicago South Shore & South Bend Railroad Company (CSS) moves freight exclusively and shares the line with passenger trains, which are operated by the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (NICTD).
“The [double track] project not only increases the amount of passengers that can move on the line in a more expedited way, but also improves the ability for the freight team to run more freight,” says CSS President Todd Bjornstad. “We’re both benefitting at the same time with the capacity improvement.”
Bjornstad says CSS hauls about 50,000 carloads of freight per year, including coal that fuels area power plants and cargo that supports, for example, ArcelorMittal, the largest steel mill in the region. Lumber and chemical products also loom large on CSS’s list of about 40 commodities that it hauls for the region.
CSS operates 127 miles of line between Chicago and South Bend, with the Chicago-Michigan City corridor comprising the bulk of its business. The eastern half of that route will get a boost when the double track project is complete, adding a second parallel track for the 17-mile stretch between Gary and Michigan City.
As it does now with the existing main line, CSS will share the additional line with NICTD. CSS and NICTD developed models to analyze the project’s impact over the next 30 years. CSS expects its freight business to grow about 25 percent in the next 20 years.
“When we have double the track, we’ll have more track to share,” says Bjornstad. “Both of us put in what our train schedules will look like over the next several decades with the improved infrastructure of the double track, and the modeling came back that it looks good for both of us to grow for decades to come.”
NICTD says the $290 million project is expected to “substantially reduce” the one-hour and 40-minute commute between Michigan City and Chicago. Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb cited approval of the project’s funding as a top accomplishment of the 2017 General Assembly, noting it will attract talent from the nation’s third-biggest economy in Chicago, enticing workers to move to “this side of the border.”
Legislation calls for the state to fund 25 percent of the project, spending $180 million over 30 years. Leaders in northwest Indiana have applied for federal funding to cover 50 percent of the cost, and four local counties will comprise the final 25 percent. Construction is slated to begin in 2019, and the line is expected to be fully operational in 2020.
While Bjornstad contends the project “is about moving people,” he’s confident freight will follow suit as the line increases CSS’s cargo capacity.
“It means growth for the current businesses that we serve, and also northwest Indiana; the double track will attract more people here and more businesses,” says Bjornstad. “South Shore freight will benefit, because in theory, the more business that comes to northwest Indiana, the more opportunity we have to move more freight. Like any business, we want to grow our business model and have sustainable growth for decades to come.”
Bjornstad says a great business collaboration with NICTD ensured freight would also benefit from the passenger-focused project.
Bjornstad says many people don’t understand that the freight and passenger companies are separate entities.