Passengers wait for an early morning commuter train at the East Chicago South Shore station in file photo. The rail line is only at 12% of the ridership it had before the COVID-19 pandemic, officials said. (Joe Puchek / Post-Tribune)
Passengers wait for an early morning commuter train at the East Chicago South Shore station in file photo. The rail line is only at 12% of the ridership it had before the COVID-19 pandemic, officials said. (Joe Puchek / Post-Tribune)
Nearly two years ago, companies in downtown Chicago sent most of their employees home to protect them from the new COVID-19 pandemic.

South Shore Line trains, which had been packed with people going between Northwest Indiana and downtown Chicago during weekday rush hours, carried only about 8% of their regular ridership by March 2020 and the railroad temporarily trimmed its schedule.

The trains recently have carried about 35% of their pre-pandemic rush hour ridership and more than 50% to 60% of their previous weekend and off-peak passengers.

Recently, increased COVID-19 infections among employees prompted the South Shore Line to announce that it might have to “temporarily adjust” weekday train schedules if there aren’t enough healthy workers to run the trains. It said schedule changes would be posted on the railroad’s homepage, www.mysouthshoreline.com, and on its Facebook and Twitter pages, its mobile app, and by email.

But what will the future look like when the pandemic finally eases? Will more people continue working from home instead of commuting to downtown offices?

And what will that mean for the South Shore Line?

“The core of commuter rail was always the Monday-to-Friday business traveler,” South Shore Line President Michael Noland said. “That probably will be modified.”

There’s considerable discussion on how much the traditional business workplace environment will change, as some employees prefer the flexibility of working from home for at least part of the workweek.

“I think the downtown business model will change,” Noland said, “but it’s going to survive. As employers are going to need to be flexible, so is the transit industry.”

Noland isn’t just basing his views on what he sees in the Chicago area and Northwest Indiana.

He is vice chair of the Commuter Rail Coalition, whose members are executives from commuter railroads across the country, from Connecticut to California.

“We chat regularly about what we are all seeing,” Noland said. “We share information on what we hear from the business communities. We consult with the National Association of Realtors on trends in commuting and office space.”

What does he expect?

“It’s not going to be one size fits all,” he said. “There’s going to be more work-from-home flexibility. We’ve always expected that.”

That could be an opportunity for the South Shore Line, the way Noland sees it.

The pandemic hit just as the railroad was beginning the two largest expansion projects in its history — the $945 million West Lake Corridor from Hammond to Dyer, and the $491 million Double Track NWI from Gary to Michigan City.

After years of planning and preparation, actual construction on both is to begin this year. In two and three years, more trains should start running on the new and expanded lines.

Noland expects 14 new trains — half of them “off-peak,” or non-rush hour — will be added to the schedule with the expanded Double Track capacity.

He said West Lake will have regular shuttle service between Hammond and Dyer to bring passengers to the main South Shore route, plus trains between Dyer and Chicago.

“We’re kind of positioning ourselves to be more ready for a flexible work schedule,” Noland said.

The faster train schedule expected with Double Track should allow the railroad to compete better with cars for travel to the Loop, he said. And national safety statistics show that taking a train is much safer than driving — and less stressful.

“I still feel there’s a very, very bright future ahead for commuter rail,” Noland said.
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