Imagine arriving at Union Station Downtown to catch an Amtrak train to Chicago. You sprint to the platform, and the train has just pulled out. But instead of cursing traffic and rescheduling the trip for the next day, you simply wait an hour — and catch the next train.
Increasing service from one trip a day for the perennially cash- and passenger-starved Hoosier State line will be a priority for Edwin Ellis, president of Iowa Pacific Holdings. He envisions a high-frequency system that runs between Indianapolis and Chicago 14 times a day.
“You need to be able to go to the station to catch a train and, if you miss it, you can get another,” Ellis said. “The trains need to leave on a regular basis and be convenient.”
Adding trains isn’t as simple as putting more on the tracks. The process is complicated and expensive and would require taxpayer help. But the effort could yield long-term payoffs. As more passengers come aboard, the route could begin to earn a profit.
Iowa Pacific, of Chicago, is in the first year of a three-way contract with the Indiana Department of Transportation and Amtrak to furnish and maintain the train cars, provide food service and perform marketing. Amtrak engineers still run the trains, and his employees manage reservations and ticketing.
The route was nearly put out of business earlier this year because of a funding shortage and because of a federal ruling that burdened INDOT. The state’s congressional delegation persuaded the Federal Railroad Administration to waive the rule, which would have required INDOT to be the train’s operator, and INDOT hammered out a contract with Iowa Pacific and Amtrak over the summer. INDOT will pay $254,527 per month to subsidize the train through June 2017, while Tippecanoe County and the cities of Crawfordsville, Lafayette, Rensselaer and West Lafayette will pay a combined $21,194 per month.
Iowa Pacific already has made dramatic upgrades. The train has added a domed lounge car and a dining car with white tablecloths. Alcohol service and snacks are offered the entire trip and Wi-Fi is free. Capacity has increased from 88 to 184 passengers, with four cars instead of two.
“The trip is five hours, and these are the amenities that passengers want,” Ellis said.
On a recent trip, Amtrak dining and lounge car servers dressed in white shirts, vests and ties were attentive and eager to point out that the food was cooked fresh on the train and not microwaved. Dinnerwas served on ceramic plates with silverware and glasses. Breakfast included omelets and egg burritos.
In the domed car, the windows curved over the roof, offering a panoramic view of the Hoosier landscape as the train sped through cornfields at speeds of up to 70 mph.
But so far the train still runs only once a day, four days a week, from Indianapolis to Chicago and back. The times are inconvenient each way The train leaves Indianapolis at 6 a.m. and arrives in Chicago at 10:05 a.m. It leaves Chicago at 5:45 p.m. and arrives in Union Station at 11:50 p.m. The trip also takes two hours longer than driving and is often late.
Before any new train times are added, Iowa Pacific and INDOT have to confer with CSX, the owner of the tracks, which runs freight trains several times a day. INDOT spokesman Will Wingfield said the agency has had informal talks with CSX about how to improve passenger speed and frequency on the tracks but are a long way from reaching any agreement.
Ellis said a “large capital investment” would be needed to buy new tracks as “sidings” so passing trains would be able to get by each other. He would not offer a price estimate.
A 2013 study by a consultant for INDOT estimated that track improvements, mostly sidings, would cost $117 million and signals would cost an additional $39 million. Sidings of 10,000 feet would be added near Lizton in Hendricks County and Roselawn in Jasper County. A 10,000-foot siding near Indianapolis would be extended to 28,000 feet.
Ellis said improvements are achievable. He noted that congestion near Chicago has improved recently, so the Hoosier Line isn’t delayed as much as it used to be pulling out of the city’s Union Station. And he said he is convinced that the more trains the railroad runs, the more passengers it will attract. “Five trains a day would a good starting point,” he said.
State Rep. Randy Truitt, R-West Lafayette, said he recently rode the train and it arrived 45 minutes early in Chicago.
“If they can make that a regular thing, that’d be a huge advantage,” he said. “The other keys are to improve the timetable and get more trains running.”
A 2013 study by the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., found that Amtrak, which operates at a deficit each year, makes money on its shorter routes, under 400 miles, while the long-distance routes are the big money losers. The biggest profits are on busy East Coast routes, such as the Acela Express, between Washington, D.C., and New York City.
There are examples of Amtrak ridership increasing exponentially as trains are added. When Amtrak increased the number of trains between Chicago and St. Louis from three to five, ridership increased from 262,320 to 477,888 in the first year, 2007. By 2014, ridership had shot up 717,565 per year.
Truitt said he has been trying to persuade the Indiana congressional delegation to fight for federal grants that could pay for track upgrades. And he said that he is trying to persuade CSX to support track upgrades because the railroad also would benefit and could ship more freight.
“They can get upgrades out of this,” said Truitt, who fought to save Amtrak funding in this year’s legislative session. “We really need the freight guys to buy into this.”
U.S. Rep. Andre Carson, D-Ind., said federal funding for new tracks was an option worth considering, according to a spokeswoman. But competition for transportation grants is fierce, and Carson would need to see a detailed plan before pursuing a grant for the Hoosier State, spokeswoman Jessica Gail, said in an e-mail.
A spokeswoman for CSX responded to questions with a written statement that the railroad would listen to suggestions about how to run more passenger trains.
“Expanding passenger service along the Hoosier Line would require collaboration and support from many different stakeholders,” said Gail Lobin, of CSX. “CSX would be pleased to participate in the process to review and evaluate the opportunity.”
Short train routes like the Hoosier Line can be a convenient substitute for short airplane rides, Truitt said.
“The airlines don’t run those routes anymore,” he said.
And the routes that do remain, like flights from Indianapolis to Chicago, can take longer — with getting to the airport, check-in times and baggage retrieval — than driving.
Amtrak warned in a recent monthly financial report that intercity passenger buses like Megabus were filling the void better than Amtrak and skimming off some of its riders.
Lafayette Mayor Tony Roswarski said the Hoosier Line is an important means of travel for Purdue University students and commuters to Chicago alike. “We’ve worked really hard with Purdue to keep this train alive, and we think it’s vital to help us attract the young workers to the city who don’t drive,” he said.
He said he was impressed so far with Iowa Pacific efforts to shave minutes off the delays near Chicago.
“It has built relationships with people in the switching yards, and the dispatchers up there,” he said.
Roswarski said he was optimistic about the Hooiser Line’s future because Ellis is thinking big.
“I think what Iowa Pacific brings to the table is the best hope to make it a sustainable line,” Roswarski said
Start reporter Cara Anthony contributed to this story. Call Star reporter John Tuohy at (317) 444-6418. Follow him on Twitter: @john_tuohy.