EDITORIAL: Amtrak talks need to succeed

September 28, 2013

Better late than never.

Less than a week before federal funding was set to end for the Hoosier State Amtrak route, which offers the only passenger train service four days a week from here to Chicago, state officials have finally begun discussing with Amtrak how to replace the annual $3 million subsidy.

Let’s hope the negotiations continue in good faith until a deal is signed to keep the wheels turning on the Hoosier State line, not only for the 180 riders a day who use it, but also for the 550 employees who repair the rail cars the route delivers to and from Amtrak’s Beech Grove maintenance facility.

Indiana is five years late to this party. Congress voted in 2008 to end support for all Amtrak routes shorter than 750 miles. That includes the Hoosier State line, which runs from Cincinnati to Chicago. (The longer Cardinal line, which runs from New York to Chicago, including a stop in Indianapolis, is not in jeopardy.) The state only days ago released the results of a study it commissioned on the Hoosier State line.

Amtrak—a quasi-governmental agency created in 1970 to provide passenger train service when private rail companies began folding—warned that it would eliminate any passenger lines on Oct. 1, 2013, that didn’t have replacement funding.

Only about 100 riders a day board or step off an Amtrak train in Indianapolis. The timetable is inconvenient—6 a.m. departure and midnight arrival. And the 2-1/2-hour car ride to Chicago turns into five hours on Amtrak, with no dining car. But if the state signs on as an Amtrak partner, the muscle of its financial backing will give it weight to negotiate a friendlier schedule, better service and track choices near Chicago that avoid bottlenecks.

Then there are the average $28-per-hour Beech Grove jobs that help feed the local economy. Amtrak is likely to shift maintenance work to other facilities if it loses access to Beech Grove four days a week.

The Indiana Department of Transportation has said a $3 million subsidy divided among the Hoosier State line’s 180 daily riders amounts to an $80 subsidy per passenger, something the state says it’s loath to swallow. But the reality is that all transportation is tax-subsidized to some degree. Has INDOT calculated how much subsidy it provides per motorist traveling the roads rebuilt by Major Moves’ $3.8 billion? And the Indiana Economic Development Corp. has spent millions of dollars to lure companies that offer lower-paying jobs than Beech Grove’s Amtrak facility already provides.

INDOT Commissioner Karl Browning said Sept. 24 that “there are still a number of hurdles to be cleared” before the state and Amtrak can become official partners in continuing a basic transportation service that doubles as a major provider of living-wage jobs. We urge the parties involved to do whatever it takes to clear the tracks.•

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