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Railroad operator revives effort to restore trains on Nickel Plate line

April 2, 2019

A railroad operator is making another attempt to thwart a plan by leaders in Hamilton County to convert part of the Nickel Plate Railroad corridor running from Noblesville to Indianapolis into a recreational trail.

Ohio-based U.S. Rail Holdings on Friday filed two new motions with the Federal Surface Transportation Board. The first would vacate the Notices of Interim Trail Use that allow the corridor to be converted into a trail. The second seeks a preliminary injunction to keep Fishers from ripping out the tracks on the corridor.

U.S. Rail Holdings argues the line could be used for freight and passenger rail purposes, and said the railway could eventually be used to transport passengers to Union Station in Indianapolis, where Amtrak operates the Hoosier State train, which transports passengers from Indianapolis to Chicago.  

U.S. Rail Holdings in July filed a preliminary injunction to prevent Fishers, Noblesville and Hamilton County from removing the tracks and asked for guidance from the board on purchasing the line.

The board denied the first motion for preliminary injunction in December when it agreed to issue Notices of Interim Trail Use. Those notices, which were issued to Fishers, Noblesville and Indianapolis, ended a lengthy process to rail-bank the line, which protects the right-of-way for future transportation uses, but also paved the way for the cities to move forward with their plans for a recreational trail.  

Fishers, Noblesville and Hamilton County leaders announced in February 2017 they would convert part of the corridor into a 9.2-mile pedestrian trail. Fishers has already lined up financing for the first phase within the city’s limits, and it unveiled a master plan for 4.5 miles of the trail in February. The trail’s first segment is expected to cost about $9 million.

In its December ruling, the board told U.S. Rail if it purchased the line, it could seek to vacate the Notices of Interim Trail Use.

“A bona fide third-party petitioner, under appropriate circumstance, can request that a NITU be vacated to permit the reactivation of rail service," the board wrote. "A bona fide petitioner is one that has sufficient financing and demonstrates sufficient shipper demand to warrant the proposed reactivation.”

By rail-banking the line, Fishers, Noblesville and Hamilton County opened the opportunity for the line to be reactivated by the FSTB should a “genuine need for service” arise, the board said.

In the 68-page petition filed March 29, U.S. Rail contends it has sufficient funding to purchase the railroad and said there is a clear need for rail transportation on the line. U.S. Rail said it has a line of credit to pay the purchase price of the line from Noblesville to Indianapolis. It estimates the net liquidation value of the rail assets and the underlying property on the line at slightly more than $1 million.

The petition also lays out how the reactivated line would be used.

The operator said three businesses with operations along the line have expressed need for rail service: Indianapolis-based specialty chemical maker Crown Technology Inc., Arcadia-based supplier Stone Spectrum and the Indianapolis operations of the Quikrete Cos. Altogether, the companies could require 3,800 railcar loads of rail service a year, U.S. Rail said.

The line also could also be used for passengers, U.S. Rail said. The railroad was previously used by excursion trains and could be utilized that way again, it said, or it could provide interstate passenger rail service.

U.S. Rail said First Transit has agreed to work with the operator to provide passenger service that could eventually connect to Union Station in Indianapolis, where Amtrak operates the Hoosier State train.

If U.S. Rail is given the opportunity to purchase the line, it wouldn’t completely ditch plans to build a trail. In its petition, the operator mentions that it would work with the Hoosier Rails to Trails Council to establish a trail adjacent to the line. Fishers, Noblesville and Hamilton County nixed that idea, citing higher costs.

Save the Nickel Plate, a not-for-profit fighting to keep the tracks in place, applauded U.S. Rail’s petition, saying it presents a significant challenge to Fishers’ plan.

Save the Nickel Plate has long argued that the trail should run alongside the tracks and that the cities left residents out of the decision-making process while pursuing plans to convert the railroad.

“This is quite a welcome surprise,” Save the Nickel Plate president Ty Mendenhall said in written comments. “Thankfully, a railroad company has stepped up with a solution that truly capitalizes on the value that the Nickel Plate has to offer to our community.” 

Fishers on Tuesday called the latest legal filings by U.S. Rail Holdings "merely an attempt to re-litigate its failed position before the Surface Transportation Board."

"Despite this latest attempt, this order still stands and the city of Fishers will continue its efforts to develop a world-class amenity for its residents," the city said in an emailed statement. "To be clear, the city of Fishers does not support any proposal that leads to freight cars traveling through neighborhoods and clogging Fishers’ main thoroughfares multiple times a day."

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