South Shore numbers soar

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South Shore numbers soar

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South Shore numbers soar
Weekend train travelers to Chicago provide boost.

Tribune Staff Writer

Three-year-old Brandon Brooks, of Elkhart, jumps off a South Shore train at South Bend Regional Airport on a recent day after spending a few days shopping with his mother, Nicole Brooks, in Chicago. ... mbers_.sto (photo)

Tribune Photo JIM RIDER
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SOUTH BEND -- Passengers flocked to South Shore trains in bigger numbers last year, taking advantage of worry-free travel to Chicago events and avoiding airport and traffic hassles there.

About 202,000 people used the commuter trains at South Bend Regional Airport last year, a 17 percent increase over 2003, according to the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, a public agency that runs the South Shore.

In December, there was a whopping 29 percent increase, with 23,538 people arriving and leaving South Bend on the South Shore.

That compares to 18,160 in 2003.

More and more people are traveling from South Bend to Chicago on the weekends to enjoy Millennium Park, the museums, summer festivals and shopping on Michigan Avenue, NICTD spokesman John Parsons said.

Parsons also noted that South Shore ridership has doubled since its station was moved to South Bend Regional Airport in 1992.

According to NICTD, about 3.5 million people rode the South Shore trains last year. During the week, stations in East Chicago, Hammond and Gary are much busier than South Bend's station, but weekend riders fill up the trains here.

"South Bend is one of our largest ridership stations on weekends," Parsons said.

Another factor in the increase, Parsons said, could be the ongoing reconstruction of expressways in Gary, Hammond and Chicago tying up traffic during the spring and summer.

"Plus, parking is not inexpensive (in downtown Chicago)," Parsons added. "It's not uncommon for someone to spend $20 to $25 to park for a day to go to Navy Pier."

South Bend Regional Airport doesn't get a cut of the revenue for providing a boarding platform for South Shore trains. But there is an indirect benefit, airport director John Schalliol said, because more concessions are sold.

Schalliol told the St. Joseph County Airport Authority recently that South Shore was ecstatic about the increased numbers, and passenger counts may continue to go up if the travel time between Chicago and South Bend can be cut.

Currently, the trip takes about 2 hours and 20 minutes. But the airport authority and South Shore officials are discussing plans to relocate the tracks in South Bend to the airport's west end.

That would reduce the number of intersections South Shore's trains must cross at-grade -- trimming the trip to Chicago by 15 or 20 minutes.

But the relocation plan could be controversial, depending on how surrounding neighborhoods are affected.

According to NICTD, some 100,424 people arrived in South Bend in 2004, and 101,986 people left -- an increase of about 15,000 passengers over 2003 levels in both categories.

Last December, 12,520 people came to South Bend on the trains, a 32 percent hike over last year, and 11,520 people left town.

A recent survey of South Shore passengers -- the first since 1997 -- revealed that 70 percent of its riders are female, and about half have college degrees. Most are office or clerical workers, professional workers or supervisors.

Chicago's bustling Loop is believed to be the primary destination for South Shore riders, but patterns may be changing.

Employment in the Loop is thought to be decreasing, according to figures from the Illinois Department of Employment Security. There were nearly 215,000 people working in the Loop in 2000, but only 187,000 in 2003, a decline of almost 13 percent.

NICTD said ridership was down during weekdays in 2004, but weekend ridership was higher.

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