Officials who control the regional portion of Nickel Plate Railroad on Monday voted in favor of a proposal that would likely put an end to future train traffic from Hamilton County into Indianapolis.
Fishers and Noblesville, which share part of the ownership of the 37-mile railroad corridor that runs from Tipton to Indianapolis, voted Monday morning to select Arcadia Arts & Heritage Depot and Atlanta Pacific Railroad LLC as the rail's new operator.
The winning proposal, which was submitted by Hamilton County Tourism Inc. on behalf of the entities, calls for operating tourism trains only on the northern portion of the corridor—from Arcadia to Tipton.
The boards of public works from both Fishers and Noblesville approved the selection at a Monday morning meeting at Noblesville City Hall.
Officials from Hamilton County, which also co-owns the rail corridor, abstained from voting on the proposals because a conflict of interest and the absence of a commissioner meant the board didn't have enough voters to consider it.
The decision paves the way for Fishers and Noblesville officials to pursue a $9 million proposal to convert a 9.2-mile stretch of the Nickel Plate railroad corridor into a paved pedestrian and bicycle trail between the two cities. The proposed Nickel Plate Trail would run from 96th Street in Fishers to Pleasant Street in Noblesville.
The plan would put an end to the popular Indiana State Fair Train, which had used the corridor for more than 30 years before being sidelined last year.
The Hoosier Heritage Port Authority, the quasi-government agency that oversees the Nickel Plate for the owners, had been searching for a company to handle operations on the line after it terminated its policy-of-use agreement with the Indiana Transportation Museum in March 2016 amid concerns about the not-for-profit’s financials and maintenance of the tracks.
The Port Authority, which maintained that it was keeping its options open, issued a request for proposals for a new operator in April. It released the scores of the submissions earlier this month. The one from Hamilton County Tourism ranked second behind a proposal from Iowa Pacific Holdings. Three other plans that had lower scores were not up for consideration Monday.
The top-scoring plan by Chicago-based Iowa Pacific Holding, which previously operated the Hoosier State service that runs from Indianapolis to Chicago, would have used the entire corridor from Tipton to Indianapolis for passenger trains, freight trains and railcar storage.
The plan was dependent upon reconnecting the railroad with the Norfolk Southern line in Tipton to allow access to freight and railcar transportation. The local portion of the Nickel Plate line was separated from the Norfolk Southern line in Tipton in 1997 and has been isolated from other rail lines since 2007.
Fishers and Noblesville officials—who want to stick to plans to rip out the rails and build the pedestrian trail—said they weren’t in favor of the Iowa Pacific plan because they don't want freight trains running through their cities.
"We just don't need freight in my opinion," Noblesville Mayor John Ditslear said Monday.
Fishers Mayor Scott Fadness seconded that opinion. "The idea of freight running through downtown Fishers, I think, is not something our community wants," he said.
Two of the three proposals that were not sent on to the boards of public works for consideration did not propose using freight trains. All three proposed using the entire length of the rail line.
The Hamilton County Commissioners did not vote because Commissioner Christine Altman abstained because of a conflict of interest and Commissioner Steve Dillinger was not present. That left only Commissioner Mark Heirbrandt available to vote.
However, Hamilton County did participate in the unanimous vote to officially bank the rail, preserving the right of way of the entire corridor for future uses, which would include the proposed pedestrian trail.
The proposal from Hamilton County Tourism calls for using an 8.5-mile section of the railroad from Arcadia to Tipton as a tourist attraction. A not-for-profit called Nickel Plate Heritage Railroad Inc. will oversee the programming and the Atlanta Pacific Railroad, which is owned by the former president and CEO of the Indiana Rail Road, Thomas Hoback, will operate the trains.
“The Nickel Plate Heritage Railroad model is one like those in the airline industry,” the proposal stated. “A railroad operation company will manage the equipment and track for the company that manages the programming and schedule, as well as marketing and ticket sales.”
Atlanta Pacific Railroad will acquire several locomotives and passenger cars with a minimum capacity of 200, which could cost an estimated $750,000. Funding is expected to come from grants, ticket sales, sponsorships and gifts.
The plan predicts the themed, excursion trains would attract 25,000 passengers per year and operate 75 days out of the year, mostly on Fridays and Saturdays.
The Port Authority will negotiate a final agreement with Hamilton County Tourism.
The Indiana Transportation Museum also submitted a proposal, which was ranked third, but nearly all of it was marked proprietary and confidential and so it was not made public. According to the one section that was shared, the plan involved using the entire corridor for excursions such as the Indiana State Fair Train and Polar Bear Express, plus other year-round attractions.
Local officials and museum leaders have been sparring for months about the condition of the tracks and the best future usage of it.
The museum has filed a federal lawsuit against the Port Authority, Noblesville and Fishers in which it accuses the government of unjustly interfering in its operations, causing a critical loss of more than a half-million dollars in revenue.
"I appreciate the hard work of everyone involved in making the Nickel Plate Trail a reality, including the strong leadership from Mayor Ditslear and the County Commissioners," Fadness said in written remarks. "The proposal approved today allows for the preservation of the train going north from Noblesville while providing a year-round recreational trail amenity for our residents.
"The Nickel Plate Railroad played an important role in our history as a city and I believe the Nickel Plate Trail will honor that history while creating an amenity that so many of our residents have requested. This will be transformational for the heart of our city and my team and I will work to involve as many community members in the planning of the trail design as possible. I look forward to honoring our past while celebrating the future of our vibrant city with the Nickel Plate Trail."