Amtrak

The Hoosier State—the Amtrak rail line that provides service between Indianapolis and Chicago four days a week—may soon be history. 

The new two-year state budget proposed by Gov. Eric Holcomb Thursday eliminates the $3 million annual appropriation for the rail line. Without it, the line likely will be discontinued.

Two years ago, Holcomb—then lieutenant governor—went to Lafayette, one of the Hoosier State’s station stops, to proclaim the line a success:  “We all recognize the importance of the Hoosier State train to tourism and economic development.”

Thursday, though, he was practically giving the last rites.

“It hasn’t performed as originally billed,” Holcomb said.

Besides, he said, “there’s still opportunity to get from here to there” on Amtrak’s Cardinal line, which runs from Washington D.C. and New York to Chicago on three days weekly. And he sought to shift some of the blame to Amtrak.

“They’re cutting back on those short runs across the country, so it’s not just Indiana,” he said.

That was news to Amtrak. There are “no such plans,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari. In fact, he said, the focus has been on expansion.

The governor’s decision to ax Amtrak funding also came as a surprise to some legislators.

Sen. Jim Merritt, an Indianapolis Republican now running for mayor, and State Rep. Sheila Klinker, a Democrat from one of the Hoosier Line’s station stops, Lafayette, both were taken aback by the decision.

Merritt, a former vice president of the freight-hauling Indiana Rail Road Co. and a fan of the Hoosier State train, said: “I’m a supporter of that people-mover.”

“Train service between Indianapolis and Chicago is vital, and I’ll work to restore the funding in the budget that was there before,” said Merritt, who also has a freight firm, Anacostia Railroad Co., among his consulting firm clients.

To some, trains are the transportation of the past, the no-longer-needed caboose of mass transit. But one only needs to look at Europe, and the network of train lines in the East that provide vital commuter services between New York, Washington and other metropolitan areas, to see that they also can be a key engine in a world where many people – especially young adults – are choosing public transportation over car ownership.

Holcomb seems to love transportation. He’s proposing $20 million in new state investments to boost nonstop overseas flights and millions more for hiking and biking trail development. At less than 0.02 percent of the state’s two-year spending, the $6 million for the rail line is, well, chump change. But despite that 2017 Lafayette speech, he apparently doesn’t see rail in the mix.

Steve Coxhead, president of the Indiana Passenger Rail Alliance, and Doug Yerkeson, secretary of that group, are hoping to change his mind.

“We see this as a key component to building a modern transportation system in Indiana, a 21st century transportation system,” Coxhead said, envisioning a rail network linking Indianapolis with major in-state cities plus Chicago, Cincinnati, and Louisville.

He makes the same case Holcomb does for those nonstop flights to Europe: Economic development and attracting young people to work here.

“Relying completely on surface expressways, where you have to drive your own car any time you go anywhere, is actually kind of an old-fashioned idea, a 1950s idea,” he said.

But, they said, Indiana needs to improve the Hoosier State to keep it from being in what Yerkeson called a “perpetual purgatory.” 

“Our hope was that the state of Indiana would get on board like some of the other Midwestern states like Illinois and Michigan and Wisconsin and make some capital investments.”

That includes improving the rails themselves so the train can run at up to 110 miles per hour, slashing the currently 5-hour long trip to Chicago, and increasing the frequency of the trips to twice a day so it truly becomes a commuter option. That, they said, would improve the ridership numbers the state points to as one reason for killing the Hoosier State: 27,876 passengers in fiscal 2018, down from 29,504 the previous year.

But in a year when lawmakers are scrambling to find dollars for priorities such as education, they’ll settle for just keeping the Hoosier State on track.

Mary Beth Schneider is editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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