Indy-Chicago train service in jeopardy

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.– Within a matter of weeks, daily passenger rail service between Indianapolis and Chicago could become a thing of the past.

If an agreement between the state of Indiana and Amtrak is not either in place or well into good-faith negotiations by Oct. 1, the Hoosier State service line will stop running in mid-October.

Two lines currently serve the corridor.  The Cardinal line runs three days per week and encompasses a larger route that would not be affected by this scenario.

The Hoosier State line runs between the Circle and Windy cities four days each week, with stops in places like Crawfordsville and Lafayette.  The Hoosier State line’s future is in doubt because of a 2008 law passed by Congress that transferred the financial burden of routes shorter than 750 miles to the states, rather than the federal government.

In order to continue the current level of service, Amtrak told Fox 59 News that Indiana would have to pay $3 million for the next fiscal year starting in October.  The Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) said the study commissioned to look at the issue is not yet completed or available to the public.

“The average ticket price on the Hoosier State is $23,” said INDOT spokesman Will Wingfield.  “The federal support up to this point has been an average of $80 per rider.  So there’s a very big difference between the revenue the route generates and the total cost to operate.”

Wingfield said the state is looking at changing route scheduling, length and frequency as a way to increase demand and decrease the amount the state would have to pay.  Talks are also being held with local officials for those affected municipalities to chip in, he said.

Train advocates, including Bill Malcolm and Doug Yerkson, have been distributing pamphlets at and around Indianapolis’ Union State to raise awareness and help save the Hoosier State line, which was used by nearly 37,000 people last year.

“We know we’re not dealing with the perfect,” Malcolm said in agreeing that upgrades need to be made to the service, “but let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Yerkeson said Amtrak’s Hoosier State line is necessary for Indiana to compete with other cities in the region and world.  He said the line could eventually become as popular as the link between Chicago and Milwaukee, which runs five trains every day, as opposed Indianapolis’ one.

“The longterm goal is to maintain transportation alternatives,” Yerkeson said.  “Quite honestly capacity is reaching a level where we’re not going to be able to continue to expand our highway system indefinitely.  We need to have viable alternative modes of transportation.”

Also at stake could be the Amtrak maintenance facility in Beech Grove.

Right now, the Hoosier State line is used to bring much of the heavy machinery to the Beech Grove facility.  If that service stops running, Amtrak said it would make that much more difficult.

Amtrak said it has not had any discussions to move the work away from the 500 Hoosier workers at this time, but train advocates fear that could be the next step if the Hoosier State line is taken away.

Currently, Amtrak estimates the Beech Grove facility adds $71 million annually to the central Indiana economy.

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