Amtrak service, local maintenance facility in danger

August 19, 2013

Indianapolis will lose regular passenger rail service to Chicago and possibly a major employment center if the state declines to take over a federal subsidy for Amtrak before Oct. 1.

The Indiana Department of Transportation will rely on an independent study of Amtrak's Hoosier State line—which runs between Indianapolis and Chicago—plus feedback from local officials before deciding whether to provide $3 million a year to keep the service going, INDOT Legislative Director Abby Weingardt said. The study is due out in September.

In the meantime, local rail enthusiasts are trying to drum up support for an issue that’s attracted more attention in Lafayette, the second-busiest stop on the line. The Greater Lafayette Commerce will hold an Amtrak summit Wednesday from 8 a.m. to noon.

“What I’ve found is that most people aren’t even aware Amtrak intends to end the Hoosier State line without state support,” said Indianapolis resident Bill Malcolm, who takes the train once a month. “The people in Lafayette are very organized because of the Purdue [University] factor.”

The future of the five-stop Hoosier State line came into question after Congress decided Amtrak could not apply its annual operating subsidy to routes 750 miles or shorter. The federal funding for those routes will end Oct. 1.

The Hoosier State is key to the Amtrak system because it also delivers cars to and from the Beech Grove maintenance yard. The maintenance yard, Amtrak’s largest,  employs about 550 people. Beech Grove gets daily Amtrak service through a combination of the Hoosier State, which runs four times a week, and the Cardinal line, which runs three times a week between Chicago and New York.

The Cardinal line is longer than 750 miles and will continue to receive federal funding.

But without daily service, Amtrak would probably shift maintenance work to other facilities, said Rick Burton, assistant superintendent of the Beech Grove Amtrak Maintenance Shop.
The facility uses more than 100 Indiana vendors, and the average pay is $28 per hour, Burton said.

“We spend a lot of money around Beech Grove and Indianapolis,” he said. “It would be a great loss to the city.”

Rail supporters have suggested that the Hoosier State would cost less to operate if service and hours were improved, and if ridership increased.

“Right now, it’s just a difficult service to support,” said Doug Yerkeson, an Indianapolis attorney who wants to see the service continue. The trip from Indianapolis to Chicago takes about five hours; there’s no food service, and the train leaves Union Station downtown at 6 a.m. and returns at midnight.  

INDOT consultant CDM Smith is looking at how more frequent, faster service would affect costs and ridership, Weingardt said. Running the train faster would require track improvements, so INDOT might also ask local communities to chip in, she said.

Indianapolis is due for an increase in state transportation funding, but Department of Public Works Director Lori Miser said she wants to see the results of the CDM Smith study before committing local money.

Asked whether continuing the service at all is a priority, Miser said, “The ridership isn’t that high.”

The Hoosier State averaged about 180 riders a day in the 2012 fiscal year, Weingardt said. Most of the riders originate in Indianapolis and Lafayette, based on the data Amtrak reports for all Indiana stations and lines combined.

Amtrak reported a 3-percent increase in ridership at all Indiana stations in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2012. The growth was more significant at rural stops on the Hoosier State, which include Crawfordsville, Dyer and Rensselaer. In fact, Rensselaer saw a 15-percent increase, to 2,342 boardings and alightings.

Indianapolis had 34,863 boardings and alightings, or a daily average of 96 people who got on and off the train for both the Hoosier State and Cardinal lines.

Lafayette’s total was 27,363 boardings and alightings, or a daily average of 75.


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