The South Shore Line’s shuttle bus service is a bit of a mess

Ever since the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District started building a second track for South Shore Line express service between Gary and Michigan City, it’s been using shuttle buses to fill gaps in rail service. And that works out OK – unless you need to get to Beverly Shores or Michigan City’s Uptown district, where the 11th Street station used to be. In that case, your transit trip may be completely screwed up.

Between February 28 and August 6 of this year, the railroad ran shuttles between the Dune Park station and Michigan City’s Carroll Avenue stop. But if you wanted to get to the two stations in between those stops, Beverly Shores and 11th Street, you had to catch another shuttle called the Loop Bus. It was hard to figure out which buses were which unless you asked the drivers.

The drivers of the main shuttle buses tried to follow the regular SSL bus schedule, although they didn’t always succeed. But the Loop Bus schedules didn’t line up with the train schedules at all, which resulted in absurd hour-long-plus waits between legs of the trip. Things got better after June 27, when the railroad adjusted the Loop Bus schedules to better match the train timetables.

Map of The South Shore Line. Image: NICTD

But after August 6, the shuttle situation got even more complicated. The buses currently run between the Gary Metro station and Carroll Avenue, but if you need to get to Beverly Shores or Uptown, you need to disembark at Dune Park and the catch the Loop Bus the rest of the way. Again, the wait between legs can be more than an hour, so it’s hard to believe that anyone would bother to take this ridiculously complex three-seat, multi-hour trip unless they absolutely have no other options.

Does the above information seem really confusing? Don’t worry, South Shore Line employees don’t really understand it either. During the past few months of riding the train, one constant I encountered is that the ticket agents and conductors tend to have only a vague understanding of the Loop Bus schedules.

[During a recent trip to the Indiana Dunes, a ticket agent basically told me that trying to get to the Beverly Shores stop was a fool’s errand due, so I altered my plans and took a single shuttle bus from Gary Metro to Dune Park instead. -Ed]

The logistics of double-tracking

As you’d figure, double-tracking project mostly involves building a second set of tracks. But it also includes reconstruction of several sections of existing tracks. Notably, the railroad is turning the tram-like street-running track section in Michigan City’s Uptown into something more akin to what the Metra Electric District line’s looks like on 71st Street in Chicago’s South Chicago neighborhood. While the old 11th Street stop was basically a glorified bus shelter, this location will be getting a full-fledged station with platforms.

As of September 3, 2022, Beverly Shores has two tracks, and new platforms are being built on both sides. Photo: Igor Studenkov

On March 31, 2021, the South Shore Line stopped serving the 11th Street station, but riders could still reach Uptown by either catching Michigan City Transit’s Route 3 bus line from the Carroll Avenue station, or taking Amtrak’s Wolverine service from Chicago’s Union Station, which stops at the north end of Uptown.

On February 28, the work got far enough along to require the Dune Park to Carroll Avenue section to be taken out of service entirely. The Loop Bus stopped in Uptown, near the intersection of 10th and Franklin streets, and at the Beverly Shores station parking lot. The shuttles ran about once every 90 minutes in each direction seven days a week.

Catching the shuttles

On March 5, I tried to take the Loop Bus to Michigan City’s Uptown. I made the mistake of simply telling a bus driver I wanted to get to Michigan City, and accidentally wound up on the express bus to Carroll Street. I ended up hoofing it from Carroll Street to Uptown. However, I attempted to catch the Loop Bus back. I went to the 10th/Franklin intersection to catch the 4:32 p.m. Loop Bus and waited 15 minutes after that, but it didn’t show up.

I ultimately took a Michigan City Transit bus back to Carroll Avenue and caught the departing westbound express shuttle bus there. As we rode back, I asked the bus driver about the Loop Bus schedule, and his response was an apologetic shrug. “There isn’t really a schedule.”

Express shuttles at the Carroll Avenue station on March 3. Photo: Igor Studenkov

On Memorial Day, I decided to open the beach season in style by heading to Beverly Shores, where the station is a scenic mile-long walk to Lake Michigan. I thought I was more prepared this time. One of the ticket agents at Millennium Station warned me that I might have to wait an hour or two for the Loop Bus top take me 4.5 miles from Dune Park to Beverly Shores. I talked to the conductors, who admitted they weren’t sure what was going on with the Loop Bus, except that I might have to wait a couple hours.

But I got lucky. When the first bus I rode dropped me off at Dune Park, the driver pointed me to a Loop Bus that was waiting behind all the express shuttles. The Loop Bus left right after the express shuttles did, getting me to Beverly Shores without any issues. So far, so good.

Original Loop Bus schedule posted at the Beverly Shores station. Photo: Igor Studenkov

But on the way home I was not so fortunate. I planned to catch the westbound Loop Bus scheduled to stop at Beverly Shores at 6:11 p.m. But as 10 minutes, then 20, then 30 minutes passed, and I watched multiple express buses race by, I became, to put it mildly, concerned. I thought I caught a break at around 7:00 p.m., when one of the express bus drivers pulled into the nearby gas station to get a snack, but that driver said he had no idea what was going on with the Loop Bus, and he couldn’t help me.

I was about ready to start walking the several miles to Dune Park when a bus driver pulled into the station. To his credit, the operator apologized, saying that Loop Bus drivers are sometimes asked to help out with express shuttle service, and during the shuffle he forgot about making the Beverly Shores stop. In subsequent conversations with express bus drivers, they told me not many people used the Loop buses. Gee, I wonder why?

A shuttle bus at Dune Park. Photo: Igor Studenkov

On June 27, the South Shore Line released the new Loop Bus schedules. The departure times were more aligned with train arrival times, which led to different weekday and weekend schedules. Instead of making all stops, most weekend buses skip Uptown, and some evening buses don’t go past Beverly Shores. Riders heading to Uptown still have Michigan City Transit buses as an alternative. But after Amtrak quietly closed its Michigan City station in April, they have fewer Sunday/evening transit options. On the bright side, from what I’ve seen, the Loop Bus drivers followed the schedules fairly closely.

The Gary-Carroll shuttle transfers

On August 6, the South Shore Line added another wrinkle. With the railroad building a new station and realigning tracks in Gary’s Miller neighborhood, the shuttles now run from Gary Metro to Carroll Avenue. Depending on the passenger load, they may make local stops or run express. But if you want to get to Beverly Shores or Uptown, you still need to catch the Loop Bus, which continues to run on the June 27 schedules.

I saw the downsides of this approach when I went to Beverly Shores on September 3. The express shuttle I took from Gary arrived at Dune Park around 10:05 a.m., but the next Loop Bus wasn’t scheduled to arrive at Dune Park until 12:10 p.m. There were about ten people waiting, and most of them either called friends or family to pick them up, or else used ride-hail out of frustration.

In retrospect, those riders could have taken the express to Carroll Avenue, caught the 10:36 a.m. westbound Loop Bus then got off at Uptown or Beverly Shores, but none of the South Shore Line staff or bus drivers mentioned that was an option.

South Shore riders I recently spoke with either use the Carroll Avenue station or travel all the way to South Bend, the eastern terminus of the line. Aside from a few minutes’ delays, they had no issues. “It’s been pretty good,” said Steven Johnson, normally takes the train to the Carroll Avenue station. “No delays or anything like that.”

Using a skyway to transfer between shuttle buses and trains at Gary Metro. Photo: John Greenfield

Another rider named Sam said she usually takes the train all the to South Bend. She said that her one big issue was when the elevator at the Gary Metro Center was out of service, forcing her to use the steep stairs that lead to the bus level. “It’s not much different [from the trains.] The most they got delayed was five or minutes. I’m looking forward to [double-tracking] getting done – I think the service will be much better.”

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