South Shore ridership dropped 1.7 percent in 2013 as compared to 2012, due mainly to the slow economic recovery and fewer riders going to festivals and other entertainment in Chicago.
The smallest decline was on weekdays during rush hours, while the largest decline in ridership came during the weekday outside those times, according to John Parsons, Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District planning and marketing director.
Altogether, the South Shore boarded 3.61 million passengers in 2013 between South Bend and Chicago, as compared to 3.67 million in 2012.
Ridership during rush hours ended the year on a positive note, with a slight increase as compared to the last three months of 2012. That ridership is heavily dependent on the state of the economy in Chicago and in particular in the downtown Loop, which is the primary destination for most South Shore riders.
"It has taken a awhile for Chicago to come back," Parsons said of the Windy City's economy.
The Chicago area's unemployment rate stood at 8.8 percent in November, as compared to 8.9 percent a year before that, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security. Unemployment in the Chicago region reached a peak of 10.9 percent in March 2010.
Another factor in the drop in ridership was the construction shutdown of the Nine Span Bridge on Indianapolis Boulevard. The bridge serves as the gateway to the East Chicago station, which has the largest parking lot on the South Shore line. A new bridge built in place of the Nine Span Bridge opened in December.
The commuter railroad's sixth straight year of ridership decline comes as local boosters are again making a push to secure financial support to extend the South Shore rail line to Lake County's suburbs.
In 2007, just before the recession hit, the South Shore had its highest ridership ever under NICTD management at 4.25 million riders. The year before it had the fastest growing ridership of any commuter railroad in the United States.
The 1.7 percent South Shore ridership decline in 2013 represents a larger decline than in the previous two years, when ridership dropped just 0.2 percent each year. However, the 2013 decline is much smaller than the drop of 7 percent the South Shore experienced in the depths of the recession in 2009.
A decline of 3.5 percent in weekday ridership outside of rush hours and a 2.4 percent decline in weekend ridership were driven by a number of factors, Parsons said.
The downsizing of many Chicago festivals, including the Taste of Chicago, appears to have depressed ridership for those events. Weather also was a factor this year, with the South Shore carrying 20 percent fewer passengers to this year's Magnificent Mile Lights Festival at the end of November because of frigid temperatures that dipped as low as 15 degrees.