CHESTERTON — Though the region is still being impacted by COVID-19, South Shore Line ridership has seen steady increases month over month.

“We have seen a steady growth – we’ve seen it month over month. I think it kind of plateaued in August,” South Shore president Mike Noland said at Monday’s Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District Board meeting. “The numbers for September are looking good.”

Noland told the board that the railroad expected to see a bump in ridership after Labor Day, but was impacted by the recent surge in COVID-19 cases.

“In addition to the Chicago mask compliance, we’ve also seen the increase in the Delta variant surge. We have been hearing indirectly through conversations with some of the major employers that plans to bring people back to the office have been slowed down a little bit.

“Maybe instead of Labor Day it’s into October. It’s a wait and see comfort level to make sure that everything is heading the right direction,” Noland said.

South Shore Line chief accountant Kelly Wenger said they are starting to creep ahead of ridership numbers from 2020.

The South Shore has seen 584,217 total passengers through August, compared to 802,685 in 2020 and 2,195,430 in 2019.

“We did have normal ridership in January, February and half of March in 2020. It still is a good rule of thumb to keep track of 2019 to see where we’re at,” Wenger said.

August ridership was at 107,925 while July was at 121,647. Bikes on Trains ridership was at 482 for August 2021, an increase over both 2019 at 318 riders and 2020 at 206 riders.

“We had initially predicted that after Labor Day a lot of employers would be recalling employees to work. Right after Lollapalooza, Chicago brought the mask order back regardless of vaccination.

“I think that’s why we saw a bit of a dip in August. School’s starting, there aren’t as many discretionary riders going into Chicago,” Wenger said.

Revenue for all tickets in January through April of 2021 was $4,087,049, compared to $5,521,385 for the same period in 2020.

On Saturday, the South Shore stopped select trains at Metra’s 18th Street Station to accommodate riders attending the Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin football game.

Noland said they were running full eight-car trains at more than 100 percent capacity.

“That’s a testament to our riders willing to come back to the system because we have invested heavily in sanitization efforts, so folks feel comfortable coming back to the system.

“When they’re ready to come back, they know we will be ready as well. We’re excited about the trends and where we’re going,” Noland said.

Regarding COVID-19 measures, the South Shore is still requiring face masks on trains.

“The biggest thing is that the TSA and the FRA extended their mask compliance requirements” through Jan. 18, based on the continued issues with the Delta variant, Noland said.

The South Shore is under a Federal Railroad Administration emergency order requiring employees to wear masks for all indoor work in the railroad industry.

Additionally, the Transportation Security Administration’s face mask requirement for individuals across all transportation networks across the country, including at airports, on commercial aircraft, on over-the-road buses, and on commuter bus and rail systems is still in effect.

“We continue to be ever vigilant here on the railroad to make sure we’re doing everything we can to stay safe, to encourage our employees to get vaccines, to make sure if there are instances in the workplace, we keep them to a minimum. Those efforts remain strong,” Noland said.

Riders, said Noland, have continued to be cooperative with mask compliance.

“It’s a constant effort to remind individuals to be compliant – certain individuals. As an overall standpoint, our riders continue to be compliant. Our employees are compliant from an internal day-to-day work standpoint,” Noland said.

NICTD Chief Operating Officer Derrick Wright said they are still providing masks to riders.

“On average we hand out about 200 masks a week. For some riders we still have to remind them about the mask mandate,” Wright said.
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