PORTER | Porter Town Council members heard initial plans Tuesday for a project to link the beach at Indiana Dunes State Park with the Porter County tourism visitor center by using vintage rail cars.
Resident Sherrill Newman and Richard Riley, a railroad aficionado and proprietor of Riley’s Railhouse in Chesterton, presented a plan for Rail Head of the Dunes Transit Authority.
They said the project aims to operate and display vintage rail cars of the South Shore Line and its predecessors.
“It would be a catalyst for development of the Munson Industrial Park and provide transportation capacity for state park and area beaches, alleviating traffic congestion in the area,” Newman said.
Riley said the rail would have capability for 400 passengers an hour using the old cars, which would be an attraction themselves. It would start in the area of the Dorothy Buell Memorial Visitor Center at Ind. 49 and U.S. 20.
The rail cars date from the early 1900s. They have been in the private collection of a local resident who has a storehouse of repair parts for the cars, two miles of track, overhead line material, catenary bridges and crossing signals that would be made available for a donation to a nonprofit.
“I am very interested in seeing the redevelopment of this area, and this plan seems to answer a lot of a problems with one bang," Riley said. "Plus, from an historical perspective, there would be a lot of interest. You don’t have to be a rail fan to appreciate some of this stuff, but what you have to appreciate is the amount of money it represents and the potential.”
Riley said there is a “long road that lies in front of us.” He and Newman appeared before the Porter Town Council to ask for support in a study they estimated could cost between $10,000 and $30,000.
Newman said the team already has been working with pro bono rail designers and has done research with other communities that have repurposed rail and historical cars for similar development. Routes for the local line are still to be determined.
“We have a considerable number of easements that could be run up, but we are not prepared yet to talk about routes because to be quite honest, we don’t know,” Newman said.
Council Vice President Elka Nelson said she would be concerned about that route.
“We don’t want to put out the money for a study if the Indiana Dunes National (Lakeshore) isn’t going to play ball, because we know they usually don’t, and there is some importance in staying away from pipe dreams," she said. "We need to know if this is something physically on our radar.”
“I don’t feel comfortable for the town to spend tens of thousands of dollars now,” council member Jeanne Virtue said.
Council President Greg Stinson suggested Newman and Riley contact the national park and said the Town Council would draft a letter of support for the concept.
Nelson said town officials would need more information on the route and alternatives and costs of operation regardless of involvement from the National Lakeshore, various state agencies and Porter County.
"We didn’t want to abandon the water park and we don’t want to abandon train track, so the idea got straight As here," Nelson said, "but there are a lot of questions.”