Train whistles are blowing again in northern Hamilton County, as the Nickel Plate Express offers passengers a fresh perspective on riding the rails.
Two years after Nickel Plate Railroad owners halted tourism train service, a new operator is revving up excitement for excursions along 12 miles of track from Atlanta to Noblesville.
The fall schedule is still being finalized, but long-term plans call for outings suitable for adults (Uncorked Express and Ales & Rails Express) as well as families (The Pumpkin Express, Ghost Express and Reindeer Ride). Ticket prices vary based on the excursion, starting at $19 for adults and $10 for children.
IBJ climbed aboard the Nickel Plate Express for a test run before the sold-out Sept. 15 grand-opening ride. Here’s what to expect when you explore.
A nice drive
Excursions depart from tiny Atlanta—home to 750 friendly people and a few soreheads, according to the welcome sign on State Road 19. Set your GPS and leave roundabouts in the rearview mirror as you cruise through the country.
Look for the train where the tracks meet Main Street and grab a parking spot in the street or in the lot behind Town Hall (105 E. Main St.). Don’t forget your tickets, which will tell you to arrive 15-30 minutes before departure.
A bit of a climb
The Nickel Plate Express uses 1956 Santa Fe Railway Hi-Level passenger cars, pulled by a 1956 diesel locomotive built for the Erie Mining Co.
Guests choose their seats when they buy tickets, so you know which car to board. But don’t worry if you make a mistake; passengers can walk between cars as long as the train is not moving.
In the 1950s, passengers probably boarded from a train station platform. In 2018, you use a stepstool placed on the track. It’s a big step up for some of us and not an option for someone with limited mobility. The cars are expected to be made handicap-accessible next year.
Once onboard, there’s still climbing to do. Seating in the Hi-Level cars is on the second floor, up a narrow staircase. The extra altitude makes for a quieter ride and a better view—important considerations for the El Capitan luxury train’s original Chicago-to-Los Angeles route.
A comfortable ride
The Hi-Levels were built for comfort, according to our “car host,” a Nickel Plate Express employee who spoke briefly at the beginning of the trip and shared occasional further commentary.
Indeed, the leather-and-cloth seats in the air-conditioned passenger cars actually recline, and they have footrests to boot. Even the toggle-controlled overhead lights still work. And there’s also a dining/lounge car, where travelers sit at tables and have access to concessions. Seats there cost more than the passenger cars.
A kitchen occupies the first floor of the dining/lounge car; the other cars have restrooms and storage space.
An interesting view
Once you’ve settled in, the equipment takes a back seat to the entertainment on the other side of the train windows: the view.
The Nickel Plate Express heads south from Atlanta at about 10-15 mph, running along the west side of State Road 19 through Arcadia and into Cicero. Eventually, it will travel to Noblesville. Much of the area remains agricultural, but there’s also plenty of small-town charm—including plenty of residents waving as the train goes by.
Sit on the west side of the car (the right side if you’re facing south) for a largely agrarian vista, tracking the progress of corn, soybeans and other crops through the harvest. On our ride, we saw a pair of deer frolicking in the field stop to watch us when they spotted the train.
The views from the east side of the car are more varied, as the tracks run behind homes, businesses and schools. We saw the 150-year-old railroad depot in Arcadia, a small herd of cows clearly startled by the train’s blaring horn and girls playing soccer at the Hamilton Heights sports complex.•