The South Shore commuter railroad finally may be leaving the recession behind it, ending 2011 with five straight months of year-over-year ridership increases, according to year-end data from operator Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District.
The monthly increases come after three straight years of ridership decreases, with 2011 ridership essentially flat overall as 3,706,676 riders took a South Shore train as compared to 3,714,356 in 2010, for just a 0.2 percent decline.
"It looks like we have turned the corner," said South Shore Planning and Marketing Director John Parsons. "You hate to read too much into it, but it looks like we have."
Ridership declined 4.4 percent in 2010, 7 percent in 2009 and 1.6 percent in 2008, according to NICTD.
The recession-driven ridership decline was the longest and deepest on record since NICTD took over the railroad in 1977, according to historical records. However, it appears even with that decline it will not fulfill the railroad's worst fears and sink back to the levels of the 2002-04 recession, Parsons said.
In 2007, just before the recession's onset, the South Shore notched its highest ridership ever at 4.25 million riders, and the year before it had the fastest growing ridership of any commuter railroad in the United States.
The decline in ridership during the past few years has led to painful cuts at the railroad, including 28 job cuts, the elimination of two trains in 2010 and other measures.
The South Shore closed December with its highest monthly ridership increase of the year, when 4.1 percent more riders took the trains as compared to December 2010. Ridership also increased on a year-to-year basis in the previous four months as well as January, March and May.
The South Shore's all-important rush-hour ridership increased 3.4 percent in 2011, as employment in downtown Chicago made its first steps toward recovery. Weekend and holiday trips also recovered, increasing 6 percent, according to NICTD figures.
However, travel outside rush hour on weekdays continued to flag for most of the year. It began to recover in the last three months, with a 10.1 percent increase in December.
One of the largest impacts on off-peak travel tends to be employment in Northwest Indiana, Parsons said. When people are flush with cash they take the train to ball games and other entertainments in Chicago. When times are tight, they don't.