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South Shore Line staffing up ahead of Double Track service expansion

screenshot from Zoom meeting video

The South Shore Line is gearing up for its first major service change in decades.

Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (NICTD) President Mike Noland outlined the railroad's annual business plan with the NICTD board Monday. "This year, we're going from a service offering 43 trains in and out of Chicago to 57. That's because, in May, we will start our revenue service on the Double Track project," Noland said.

The Double Track project is currently 97-percent complete. Noland said the remaining work involves finishing the overhead wire, implementing positive train control improvements and testing the new track.

The railroad is also hiring new staff to run the new service, like engineers, conductors and collectors. Noland said the jobs offer good wages and federal railroad retirement benefits.

"It's one of the few areas left in this nation or world where you can start as a brand new employee and work forever and retire from the same entity," Noland added.

NICTD will hold a job fair Tuesday, February 6 in Michigan City.

But running those extra trains and hiring those new employees will cost money — at a time when revenue still hasn't completely recovered from the pandemic.

Noland said the railroad has been dipping into its cash reserves to fill the gap. He hopes the Indiana General Assembly addresses that shortfall next year, after the new service is up and running.

"We do need to do something structurally with our state funding," Noland told board members.

While commuting patterns may not be going back to what they were pre-pandemic, Noland is confident that the expanded service will leave the railroad well-positioned for hybrid workers. "Folks are going into the office now, but they're not going 8:00 to 5:00," Noland noted. "But they are going in at a targeted basis, so you need to — the rush hour — probably, we could take some trains out of the rush hour and spread them more out and have a regional rail."

Noland said the new Double Track trains will help fill gaps in service outside of rush hour.