Rail service between Chicago, Indianapolis ‘an anomaly’
By Matt Mikus firstname.lastname@example.org August 31, 2013 11:30PM
A conductor assists as Julie and Frank Zinn of Delaware, Ohio board an Amtrak train at the Dyer, Ind. station Thursday morning October 18, 2012. The Zinns, who chose the Dyer station for its safety and ease, picked up the train in Dyer to begin their Totally Trains Tour which will take them through the West, up the Pacific coast to Seattle and back. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 2, 2013 6:36AM
Train service between Indianapolis and Chicago has had a long and, in recent years, troubled past. As the fate of the Hoosier State Line faces an Oct. 1 deadline, hints at the future of the train service could lie in its past.
“The Hoosier State is an anomaly,” said Ray Lang of Amtrak. “It’s hard to describe it.”
The passenger line averages fewer riders than any other train in the region, yet also serves as a vital link as a hospital train to move cars to Amtrak’s central repair station in Beech Grove near Indianapolis.
The Hoosier State had 36,669 riders in 2012, only about 1.2 percent of ridership in the nation’s central region. By comparison, each of the other corridors in the region had at least 100,000 riders in 2012. The Lincoln from Chicago to St. Louis had nearly 600,000 — and it is supported by Illinois’ transportation service.
“Indiana has never spent any money on helping any Amtrak service,” said Craig Sanders, author of Amtrak in the Heartland. “They have never spent a dime, not like Michigan or Illinois or Wisconsin has.”
The lack of funding according to Sanders, is part of the reason for slow service, forcing Amtrak to transfer among five railroads, slowing the three-hour trip by highway to five hours by train.
History of Hoosier State
When Amtrak was created in 1971, two trains served the Chicago-Indianapolis corridor, but ridership declined with the completion of Interstate 65. Rail maintenance fell behind as passenger trains declared bankruptcy, and soon the route was abandoned.
Amtrak purchased the Beech Grove repair facility in 1975, and delivered cars and equipment by traveling to St. Louis and connecting to the National Limited from Kansas to New York traveling through Indianapolis.
The first direct train between Chicago and Indianapolis was offered after Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh called for a demonstration train to travel between the two cities in 1979.
On Oct. 1, 1980, the Hoosier State began its first trip.
Amtrak’s Cardinal had already provided service from Chicago to Cincinnati via Indianapolis, and used a service train to deliver repairs to Beech Grove on days the Cardinal wasn’t running.
“Since we didn’t have passengers on the service trains,” Lang said, “we found out that the trains were taking over 24 hours to make the journey. So we decided to run a passenger train when the Cardinal doesn’t run, and use it as a shop train. That train became the Hoosier State.”
In 1995, the Hoosier state was discontinued but returned in 1998, and was expanded to operate four days a week, providing one round trip between Chicago and Indianapolis on days the Cardinal did not run.
Congress’ call for cash
The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires that states must cover 80 percent of operating costs for all passenger trains under 750 miles. When Amtrak set up the guidelines to meet the requirements in March 2012, only Indiana disagreed with the new methodology.
The Indiana Department of Transportation did not support the federal mandate to cover up to 80 percent of the operating costs. And state politicians worry about paying nearly $3 million a year for an under utilized service.
But Amtrak sees the Hoosier State as an essential part of its operation, according to Sanders.
“I really believe that if the Beech Grove shop wasn’t in Indianapolis,” he said, “we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”
Sanders adds that Amtrak has brought the Hoosier State back before, but that was before state funding was required for shorter services.
INDOT is scheduled to release a study in September on the costs of expanding, canceling or continuing service, and will have to decide how to proceed.