Indy to Chicago Amtrak route faces deadline
By Matt Mikus email@example.com April 23, 2013 3:49PM
An Amtrak train bound for Chicago pulls into the Dyer train station. Supporters of maintaining Indianapolis to Chicago service will meet Wednesday in Lafayette. | File photo
Updated: May 25, 2013 6:08AM
INDIANAPOLIS — An Amtrak rail service carrying passengers from Chicago to Indianapolis may see the end of the line if Indiana policymakers decide against picking up the bill.
The Hoosier State rail service runs four times a week, leaving Indianapolis in the morning and coming back by late afternoon. The line stops in Dyer, Rensselaer, Lafayette and Crawfordsville. The other days, the Cardinal rail service travels from Chicago to Indianapolis and continues to New York, giving the Chicago-to-Indianapolis market daily rail service.
The federal government will stop subsidizing trips within 750 miles starting Oct. 1, which would affect the Hoosier State service, but not the Cardinal.
It’s estimated that the Hoosier State line, which served about 37,000 passengers in 2012, would cost the state an annual $4 million a year if it took over the service.
The economic benefits to the state could slow without the service. Ninety-nine companies are connected to the rail infrastructure business, including an Amtrak repair station at Beech Grove, a suburb of Indianapolis. The station employs about 560 workers.
Marc Magliari, a spokesman for Amtrak, said the station would be directly affected by the number of trains that travel to Indianapolis.
“If there’s fewer trips, it can definitely affect the workflow down there,” Magliari said. “In fact, we’d like to grow the business, and having daily service would help grow that, and even more frequent service would help that as well.”
Potential to grow
Richard Harnish, director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, said the line has a lot of potential to grow, with a little help from the state.
In Illinois, the state decided to invest in cross-state train travel in 2006, doubling its investment to $24 million annually. Ridership numbers quickly saw double-digit growth. Within the Midwest region, travel by rail has grown by 35 percent from 2007 to 2012.
The distance between Chicago to Springfield and Chicago to Indianapolis is about the same, Harnish said, but the population in Indianapolis is larger, offering more potential.
Yet the level of service to Springfield averages about 159,000 passengers a year.
“Today, there’s about five trips a day each direction from Chicago to Springfield and it takes about three and a half hours, compared to Indianapolis, which is about one trip a day and takes about five and a half hours,” Harnish said. “So you need to start the discussion at increasing the number of trips, and getting the trips down to three and a half hours.”
Tim Maloney, senior policy director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, said offering alternative transportation is important to the environment.
“It can help reduce energy consumption,” Maloney said. “Rail transportation is more efficient than automotive transit compared to energy per transit mile.”
At the same time, demographics are changing, with younger people more willing to use mass transit over the costs of owning a car and a growing elderly population that may soon need to use alternative transit options.
“If the state and local government aren’t investing in alternative transportation, they’re not going to meet the growing demand,” Maloney said. “If we don’t respond, we’ll be left competing with other states that do respond.”
Train keeps rollin’
State lawmakers have added a provision to the state budget that would authorize the Indiana Department of Transportation to reach an agreement with Amtrak to provide the service.
The amendment was offered by state Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, who has expressed concern about funding a failing service but who also cited the potential to improve services.
Currently, INDOT is conducting studies to determine whether the Hoosier State can become self-sustaining, should the state decide to invest in the line.
Until then, the train will keep running through September.