(Editor's note: Word came on March 9, that Amtrak has stopped selling tickets for the Indy-Chicago Line after June 30, after the train failed to receive adequate federal and state funding. I wrote this story back in 2016, when the train was offering business class.)
At 5:45 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 9, I walk into Union Station in downtown Indianapolis. I'm here to take the Hoosier State Train to Chicago, a train that just a few years ago seemed headed for the scrapyard due to lack of ridership and lack of funding. But the train, like The Little Engine That Could, has surpassed all expectations. I'm here to check out the service and to find out whether it can survive for the long term. I board the train, climb the stairs, and take my seat in business class, in the dome car.
The train departs promptly, at 6:00 a.m. Many might see the early departure time as a downside. Then there's the five-hour travel time. The upside is, well, that you're on a train. This particular train has Wi-Fi. There will be breakfast, freshly prepared and served on white tablecloths by the onboard steward. (Coach passengers can also order food by in the ground level dining car.) I order the chef's special: an omelet.
This, you might ask, is Amtrak? Well, sort of. Actually, it's a public-private partnership between Amtrak and Iowa Pacific — responsible for adding the refurbished 1950s dome car — that commenced service on Aug. 7, 2015.
What's more, this is actually the first such public-private partnership in the country. You can thank the Passenger Rail and Investment Act for making this arrangement necessary. This law, passed by Congress in 2008, went into effect in 2013. It mandated an end to federal support of passenger rail lines under 750 miles in length, putting the Hoosier State Train in the crosshairs as it didn't generate nearly enough revenue to be self-supporting. While the Republican-dominated state legislature wasn't about to raise taxes to support this train, there were many other interested parties who were looking for creative ways to keep the rail line operating.
A Partnership of Communities
Will Wingfield, the Director of Communications at the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT), says that the Indiana towns and cities along the rail line played a major role in keeping the service alive.
"The communities made it clear to INDOT that they felt this service was important for their place-making and their economic development, so they partnered with the state to provide financial support," he said. "So as of today, INDOT, the city of Crawfordsville, the cities of Lafayette, West Lafayette, Rensselaer, as well as Tippecanoe County, jointly fund the service."
Once INDOT had secured this source of revenue from these municipalities and counties, they started to look into private sector sources of funding for the rail line, which they viewed as a way to both increase ridership and revenue, according to Wingfield.
"So we did a request for proposals in April, 2013," he said. "We had four companies respond; ultimately we went with Iowa Pacific. The contract arrangement is unique: Amtrak is still the operator of record of the service. They do the ticketing, they're responsible for the train crews and for working with the host railroads. There's a separate contract with Iowa Pacific. They provide the train equipment; they provide the onboard service. They also market the service."
Heather Hice, the Hoosier State Train Sales and Marketing Manager, notes that the dome car business class option is a hit with riders, as well as a good revenue generator.
"We do promotions for families, we do promotions for business travelers," says Hice. "We actually have business programs where businesses can have their traveling employees get an employee discount. I think the key to our success is continuing the awareness drive that I've been doing for the past year. There were a lot of people prior to our taking over who had no idea there was even a train."
The numbers Hice cites seem to suggest that her efforts are bearing fruit.
'In May, June, and July ticket revenue has been 60 percent plus over 2015," she said. "Last month [August, 2016] it was actually 70 percent over the prior year number for ticket revenue. We're steadily increasing ridership. (The ridership is up 25 percent in August 2016 compared to August 2015, according to Wingfield.)
The jumps in revenue have happened despite considerable challenges with the rail line itself. Perhaps the biggest is that the Hoosier State runs on a freight rail line, and priority is given to freight traffic. The line is mostly run and maintained by CSX Transportation Company.
If there were to be upgrades to significantly improve the speed of the train, according to Wingfield, the state would have to make the financial investments in capital improvements, he says, but INDOT has been doing what it can to improve on-time performance.
"[This means] just operationally, keeping an eye on the dispatchers, improving when the crews get on and off and when their hours time out," he says. "And those improvements have been free or low cost."
Heather Hice agrees that any improvements in the rail line itself are ultimately up to the legislature.
"What we're trying to do as a company is to show those legislators that we're doing better than we've ever performed," she says. "Our on time performance is somewhere in the realm of 90 percent. Before we took over it was much lower than that."
Beyond the Status Quo
Steven Coxhead, the president of the Indiana Passenger Rail Alliance, sees the public private partnership as a positive step that proves that there's a market for top-notch service. But he sees room for improvement.
"You really have to improve the schedule," he says. "And that means more trains. That means higher speeds. ... It's well within Indiana's capability to work with CSX Transportation ... to bring the whole corridor up to an 80-mile-per-hour standard."
He wants to see the travel time from Indy to Chicago reduced down to three-and-a-half hours. He also wants to see multiple departures and arrivals to and from Indy and Chicago on any given day. Currently the Hoosier State makes a round trip only one time per day on the four days a week on which it runs, and it arrives back in Indianapolis at midnight. (On the other three days of the week you can get to Chicago on the Amtrak Cardinal Train, which runs three days a week from New York City to Chicago and stops in Indianapolis.)
The current contract with Iowa Pacific ends in June 2017. State Representative Tim Brown (R-Crawfordsville), Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee as well as the Budget Committee, wasn't able to say definitively whether or not service would continue past that point.
"What's happening right now is that the different agencies of state government are putting together their final plans to submit to the budget organization," he says.
He's waiting for INDOT to give a presentation before the legislative budget committee and for a revenue forecast due Dec. 15.
"So as far as what's in the INDOT budget right now, I have no idea," says Brown. "I will say that a couple of years ago I was more skeptical, and as we go forward I'm more pleased with the performance. A lot of people are pleased with the progress ... so there's a lot more momentum than there was a couple of years ago."
Former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels was also one of those who was once more skeptical of passenger rail — when he was in office. But now, according to Coxhead, he's on board in the effort to keep the train on the tracks. That is because, as Purdue University president, he must respond to the needs of a large number of commuting students dependent on the train.
"This is not a partisan issue," says Coxhead, acknowledging the fact that both Democratic and Republican politicians in communities up and down the rail line are supporting the train financially.
The comfort of the ride
The return trip on the train starts at 5:45 p.m. After my meal of beef tenderloin on new potatoes, washed down with beer from the open bar, I go down to the dining car to pay the chef compliments. The chef, 60-year-old Paul Zirkle, can barely fit in his tiny kitchen but he's able to work efficiently in it.
Zirkle, for one, loves the train, as he loves his job.
"This really brought me back to my roots, what I enjoy doing, which is preparing the food. I love catering; that's my favorite thing to do," Zirkle tells me. "So when I do catering, I can get really with the people."