Negotiations begin to save Amtrak’s Hoosier State service
POST-TRIBUNE STAFF REPORT September 24, 2013 2:48PM
A conductor checks the tracks before the Amtrak train pulls out from the the Dyer, Ind. station Thursday morning Oct. 18, 2012. | Sun-Times Media files
Updated: October 26, 2013 6:26AM
Indiana officials say negotiations have begun on a contract that could keep the Hoosier State train service alive.
Amtrak officials have a slightly different take on things.
The Indiana Department of Transportation issued a news release Tuesday announcing that Gov. Mike Pence authorized the department to begin the talks last week.
In response, Amtrak’s Chicago office issued a statement noting that a proposed agreement had been sent to the state weeks ago.
“Amtrak remains committed to working directly with Indiana DOT (INDOT) to achieve a signed agreement with Indiana that will maintain the Amtrak Hoosier State service — but our time is quickly running out,” according to the statement.
INDOT officials had been holding discussions and public forums in the communities served along the Hoosier State route, which include Crawfordsville, Lafayette and Rensselaer.
Mayors and other public officials in some of those communities expressed interest in keeping the service operating and offered local funds as part of any state financing package.
If successful, the talks would preserve the four-day-a-week Amtrak train and therefore maintain daily train service between Indianapolis and Chicago.
If the talks fail, that route would be left only with three-day-a-week service via the Cardinal, an Amtrak route which runs from Chicago to New York via Washington, D.C.
In 2008, Congress voted to end federal support of Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles. The deadline for states to fund such routes is Oct. 1.
Just having the talks will keep the service alive for awhile, regardless of the outcome. Amtrak has said it would not end service in states negotiating in good faith by that deadline, according to INDOT.
Even so, Amtrak’s view of the immediate future is not quite as rosy.
“If we do not have an agreement by Monday, September 30th, Amtrak will begin steps to notify its employees and the public of the impending suspension of service” on the Hoosier State,” Amtrak’s statement read.
So far, seven of the 19 states affected by the new funding limits have signed operating agreements.
“Governor Pence supports the joint local and state effort to continue this passenger rail service, but with the negotiations, there are still a number of hurdles to be cleared,” said INDOT Commissioner Karl Browning.
“There’s common interest among state and local officials to ensure that the service is accountable for the tax dollars being invested.”
In May, Amtrak estimated it would take about $3 million a year to keep the Hoosier State running in its current form. At current ridership levels, that is a subsidy of about $80 per $24 ticket, according to INDOT.
The state transportation department also asked for a cost-benefit analysis of the existing service as well as four options Amtrak outlined to improve the frequency of service and the departure times (the train currently leaves Indianapolis about 6 a.m. and arrives in Indianapolis about 11:50 p.m.
Results of that analysis will be presented Thursday at a joint study committee.
Amtrak’s statement noted that the railroad has provided INDOT information “regarding ways to improve the current Hoosier State service and the need for infrastructure improvements to realize those benefits,” and added: “We look forward to reviewing the draft report by INDOT’s consultant after it is released.”