Agreement puts tourism train excursions on track in Hamilton County

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A tourism rail line in Hamilton County is set to begin operating on a 12-mile track between Atlanta and Noblesville later this summer, officials announced Friday.

The Hoosier Heritage Port Authority, which manages the 37 miles of rail track from Tipton to 10th Street in Indianapolis, said it signed a 15-year operating agreement with Nickel Plate Heritage Railroad Inc. late last month.

The agreement allows the latter to begin restoring the track and finalizing train schedules for the new Nickel Plate Express tourism rail line.

Train equipment will be delivered sometime during the summer, once restoration of the track is complete, officials said. Restoring the track and purchasing the equipment is expected to cost about $1.2 million. Leaders have said they were looking at federal loans or not-for-profit revenue bonds and donations to cover the expense.

The trains will run on Saturdays and Sundays, and rides will be themed. Excursions are still being planned, but they could include a wine expresswhich offers guests local wine and cheese samples—and holiday-themed rides, according to the not-for-profit’s website. Fees for using the train have not been disclosed.

March’s agreement came about eight months after the railroad’s owners—Fishers, Noblesville and Hamilton County—chose the organization as the new operator.

Hamilton County leaders began questioning the Nickel Plate Railroad’s future about two years ago, when the port authority, the quasi-government agency that oversees the railroad, ended its agreement with the Indiana Transportation Museum, which had long operated excursion trains from Noblesville to Indianapolis.

Leaders in the northern half of the county decided they wanted to continue operating trains on the railroad, while Fishers and Noblesville officials announced they wanted to remove a 9.2-mile section of the railroad and convert it to a pedestrian trail.  

Now, the group has hired an executive director and plans to begin operating trains between Atlanta and Noblesville by the end of the summer.

Nickel Plate Heritage Railroad will manage train programming and marketing, while Atlanta Pacific LLC Rail, owned by Thomas Hoback, the founder and former owner of Indiana Rail, will operate rail service.

“This is huge step forward,” Toni Dickover, president of the Nickel Plate Heritage Railroad board of directors, said in a written statement.  

Brenda Myers, president and CEO of Visit Hamilton County, said her organization has served in an advisory capacity on the project and is thrilled to see plans being finalized.

“It’s going to be a very different railroad experience,” she said. “I think whenever you can differentiate, that’s when you’re successful.”

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