INDOT faces time crunch on Chicago rail line

The Indiana Department of Transportation faces multiple hurdles in trying to meet a Feb. 1 deadline to turn the Hoosier State rail line over to a new operator.

Bob Zier, who spearheaded INDOT's effort to open the lackluster train service to competition with Amtrak, is on an unanticipated leave of absence, INDOT spokesman Will Wingfield confirmed. Transportation industry sources have said Zier suffered a heart problem.

Meanwhile, INDOT has re-hired a rail consultant and continues to negotiate with Chicago-based Corridor Capital LLC, which was supposed to take over the Hoosier State on Oct. 1.

Amtrak continues to operate the service under a four-month extension.

Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman has complained that Amtrak wasn’t involved in planning the transition until after Corridor won the bid. During a visit to Indianapolis earlier this month, he said INDOT will need to obtain multiple regulatory approvals and urged INDOT to extend Amtrak’s service beyond Jan. 31.

Trains Magazine columnist Bob Johnston, who has covered passenger rail since 1990, suggested in an Oct. 10 column that INDOT officials misunderstood the complexity of changing operators and the need to work closely with Amtrak. First, the state of Indiana, not Corridor, needs to obtain track access rights from freight railroads, he said.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said there are many tasks to be completed in the next 90 days, starting with inspection of train cars that Corridor plans to use. “Ticketing, use of our stations, indemnification and other elements of their imagined service have not been resolved," he said.

“We asked about these and other issues in a telephone meeting with INDOT on Oct. 8 and have not received any answers, nor have future meetings been scheduled. It remains very unlikely these matters will be resolved by the time our INDOT contract extension expires on Jan. 31.”

Johnston said that’s a bad sign for the future of passenger rail in Indiana.

If the Hoosier State service, which runs on alternating days with Amtrak's cross-country Cardinal Line, is allowed to lapse, even Amtrak might not be able to revive it, Johnston said.

The track between Indianapolis and Chicago needs costly improvements, and if Amtrak stops running daily trains, it could lose negotiating leverage with freight railroads to pay for those improvements, Johnston said. “The main issue here is this: It’s not simple to restart a service, even when you have a train running on the line,” he said.

Wingfield declined to say what’s at issue in the talks with Corridor. INDOT chose Corridor, which has never operated a rail line, over established rail companies.

R.L. Banks & Associates, which helped INDOT craft its request for proposals, is working with INDOT in Zier's absence, Wingfield said.  

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