Shutdown of Amtrak line threatens to derail business at repair facility
By Matt Mikus email@example.com September 14, 2013 11:53PM
An Amtrak train | Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 16, 2013 6:43AM
BEECH GROVE — As Indiana officials ponder whether to spend $3 million a year to keep Amtrak’s Hoosier State service alive, the railroad wants them to keep something in mind.
That would be the workers at Amtrak’s repair facility in Beech Grove, on the south side of Indianapolis.
Congress in 2008 passed a law requiring states to provide financial support for Amtrak routes shorter than 750 miles.
So now, the Indiana Department of Transportation must decide if it will chip in at least $3 million annually, and it must decide by the end of September. Without that support, the Hoosier State, which runs four days a week between Indianapolis and Chicago, will be shut down.
That would leave only the Cardinal, a train running three days a week along the same route on its way between Chicago and New York.
Amtrak officials say their Beech Grove facility, which repairs 150 to 175 locomotives and passenger coaches a year, could face reduced productivity if the Hoosier State is sidelined.
Besides working on Amtrak’s own fleet, Beech Grove bids for contract work, servicing both privately and publicly owned cars from across the country.
The facility employs more than 550 workers, with an annual budget of more than $100 million and annual payroll of $30 million.
Much of the work the yard does for Amtrak — such as diesel engine repairs or rebuilding trucks (wheel assemblies) — can be done only at Beech Grove. The yard also rebuilds and refurbishes the inside of coaches, including work on the heating and ventilation systems, upholstery and carpet.
“Over the last three years we’ve hired over 100 people,” said Ricky Burton, the assistant superintendent at Beech Grove, “and we start out at 28 bucks an hour. That’s a good-paying job in Indiana.”
Trains passing through Indianapolis do more than carry passengers; they deliver work to Beech Grove.
Rail cars from the East Coast slated for repairs are attached to the Cardinal, which travels between Chicago and New York by way of Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Cincinnati. (In Indiana, it also stops at Crawfordsville, Lafayette, Rensselaer and Dyer on the way to and from Chicago).
Repairs from western states are transported to Chicago, then connected to the Hoosier State and delivered to Beech Grove.
Essentially, if the Hoosier State isn’t running, that’s four days per week that equipment will be harder and more costly to deliver to Beech Grove, Amtrak officials said.
“Without the Hoosier State, it will be extremely difficult for us to compete for bids,” Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said.
Rail expansion from neighboring states may already benefit Beech Grove workers, with 88 new rail cars going into service in the next three years for Michigan, California, Missouri and Illinois.
Older cars are also being retrofitted to remain in service, which Transport Workers Union representative Brian Connors sees as potential to grow.
“There’s some great value in it,” Connors said, “and I think Indiana needs to recognize the potential growth in this industry.”
Connors said that the Amtrak facility also spends more than $21 million annually with businesses throughout the state. A slowdown in production would also affect these businesses.
Eric Via, a boilermaker at the facility, doesn’t see it as a deadly blow if the Hoosier State ends. Just a serious one.
“There’s ways around it,” Via said, “but it would definitely hurt it. It wouldn’t exactly shut us down, but it would put us in a bind.”
Burton wonders why the state has never provided any support to the rail service, since every mode of transportation receives subsidies.
“If the buses had to pay for the roads between here and Chicago, you wouldn’t have bus service,” Burton said. “And if the airlines had to pay for the airport in Indianapolis, you wouldn’t have air service here either.”
Towns asked to chip in
“Our position on this is that we’ve not been interested in investing in this solely, but if communities along the path are interested in investing in this, it’s a possibility,” said Will Wingfield, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Transportation.
INDOT officials have been meeting with communities along the Hoosier State corridor for the past week, and many in those areas have shown interest in contributing to keep the line, Wingfield said.
The state transportation department will release a study on potential changes to improve the Hoosier State, but Wingfield was unsure when the study would be available.
INDOT could also to invest additional money in the railroad, possibly increasing frequency or adding amenities like food or wireless Internet. Magliari said the choice on how to find the money is up to the state.
“We don’t go to the states and tell them, find the money here or there,” Magliari said. “We work with the states to craft the service they want.”
And this is a service the state should want, if it is serious about promoting economic growth, said U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., whose district is served by the line.
The future of transit in Northwest Indiana must include more options like the Hoosier State.
“I’m disappointed anytime there’s a possibility of the loss of public transportation assets,” Visclosky said Saturday. “In the future I believe we’re going to see more intercity-interurban rail line instead of less.”
The Hoosier State’s timetable has changed over the years. These days, it follows the same schedule as the Cardinal, leaving Chicago at 5:45 p.m. and arriving in Indianapolis at 11:50 p.m. (Indianapolis is on Eastern time, so the trip takes about five hours, not six, when the train is on time.) Northbound trains leave Indianapolis at 6 a.m., with a scheduled arrival of 10:05 a.m. in Chicago.
The Hoosier State averages about 36,000 riders a year. But ridership has slowly increased.
As the Friday train bound for Indianapolis pulled into the Dyer station about 7 p.m., a handful of passengers climb on. Since the line doesn’t offer a dining cart, one passenger ran to a Subway restaurant next to the stop, barely catching the train before heading south.
A few passengers at the station had heard of the potential closure.
Dennis McKinzie arrived from Topeka, Kan., and was heading to Valparaiso by cab for a weekend to visit family.
“I heard the conductor talking about that,” McKinzie said. “That’s too bad.”
He recalls a passenger service at his hometown of Bemidji, Minn., and when it stopped, the town talked about it returning if business picked up.
“Now it’s a part of the rails and trails program,” he said. “They turned it into a bike path.”
Jason Hansell of Indianapolis was headed back from Chicago for a trip he takes every month.
“My congressman is going to get a very angry letter about this,” he said.
Jim Burd of Dyer lives across the street from the Amtrak station. He said the train service could offer more trips, but he believes passenger service has never been driven by profits. Even in the locomotive golden age, train service was more like a public relations tool than a revenue machine.
“It’s a service that, if it doesn’t exist, that’s just more traffic on I-65,” Burd said. “Once you give up the service, you’ll never get it back.”