When Michael Noland expressed interest in becoming general manager of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District three years ago, among the materials the operator of the South Shore Line sent him was its 20-year Strategic Business Plan.
"They're usually laden with a lot of planners' terms, things that are not always realistic," Noland said about similar plans. But NICTD's included ambitious projects to extend the line southward, to modernize its central stretch, and to reroute its eastern end in South Bend.
"These are great projects," Noland recalled thinking. "These all make sense; these all need to get done."
Work to build support for the West Lake Corridor project, sustained by U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky for years, had picked up recently. But Noland felt a sense of urgency that didn't fit a 20-year time frame. "We have to get going now," Noland, who lives in Michigan City, thought at that time.
Those projects — the West Lake extension from Hammond to Dyer, the Double Track modernization project from Gary to Michigan City and a South Bend realignment — are all in some phase of development three years after Noland's 2014 hiring.
Noland, now president and general manager, is NICTD's second leader, having succeeded Gerald Hanas, who became the district's first general manager when it was created by the state to save the South Shore.
"Gerry led the way out of bankruptcy and was a crucial part of the railroad," NICTD Board of Trustees Chairman Mark Yagelski said. "Mike will lead it into the future."
Ripe for expansion
Noland arrived with more than a quarter-century's experience in the railroad industry.
When he graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1982, he had an offer to sell pharmaceuticals in Salinas, Kansas. "I also had the opportunity to join a brand new railroad in Chicago — Metra," Noland said.
The Chicago-area native chose to stay close to home, and began an entry-level human resources position at Metra, which had just been created during a reorganization of the Regional Transit Authority. In his early years at the railroad, he earned a law degree at John Marshall Law School in Chicago.
Noland didn't have a deep connection to the railroad business at the beginning, though his attorney father had represented the EJ & E Railroad. But as a Notre Dame student Noland had spent plenty of time riding the South Shore between South Bend and Chicago.
"That was my principal way to get back and forth," he said of his college years. The ride was long, but cheap. The railroad was still rebuilding after nearly going bust in the late 1970s.
Over the next several decades, with the backing of the state, NICTD made improvements under Hanas that Noland calls "the heavy lifting."
"It doesn't always translate into the glitzy things you want to show off," he said, but "when I walked into this position, the capital infrastructure was sound. The bones of this railroad were ripe to be built on."
The South Shore today, on a typical weekday, runs more than 20 trains into and out of the city, carrying about 12,000 passengers total.
The West Lake and Double Track projects, well into their planning phases, will increase the number of trains and are projected to more than double ridership.
But skepticism of the old interurban's ability to be a modern commuter railroad has been persistent. Speed — or "time to market" — is key.
"After Mike came in, in late winter/early spring (2015), we launched the Sunrise Express," NICTD Vice President for Planning and Marketing John Parsons said. "We began to see empirically we could do faster service."
The Sunrise Express leaves South Bend at 6 a.m. Eastern time and stops only at Dune Park and East Chicago in Indiana, significantly reducing travel times. A similar eastbound train leaves Millennium Station at 3:57 p.m.
Meanwhile, planning for West Lake intensified. And the idea to add a second track to single-tracked segments between Gary and Michigan City quickly came to be seen as a complementary project.
"We've got to do Double Track right away as well," Noland said rail officials decided. The projects would help make the Region "a true suburb of Chicago."
The South Bend project, which together with West Lake and Double Track would reduce travel time to Chicago to 90 minutes, began getting financial commitments this summer.
"We have the opportunity to transform our communities," he said.
A strong team
"Mike's done a fantastic job," Yagelski, a LaPorte County councilman, said, pointing particularly to Noland's communication skills in building support for the projects.
"I don't think there's a stone he didn't overturn," Yagelski said.
Noland said he's enjoyed the process of gathering support and securing financing in anticipation of submitting them to the federal government for review later this year.
The effort has included significant work locally and in Indianapolis to generate support for the projects and begin planning for the impact they could have.
The Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority is a key player in those efforts.
"When Mike came into the equation, it couldn't have been a better time," RDA President and CEO Bill Hanna said.
Noland's experience operating a commuter railroad, and with "the broader aspects beyond the train," including transit-oriented development, have been crucial, Hanna said. "I think it's critical he came in when he did.
"We make a very strong team," Hanna said. "It's gratifying for us to know the projects will affect a lot of people positively."