Playing for Time in the Hoosier State Saga

One of the more useful pieces of wisdom that I learned in graduate school is that when evaluating a given situation look for what it not there. Researchers get so focused on what they observe that they forget to consider what they are not seeing.

And so it is in the ongoing soap opera known as Saving the Hoosier State.

Amtrak President Joe Boardman insisted last week that there has been a lot of misinformation and misunderstandings surrounding the Hoosier State saga.

He’s right about that, although some of that has come from Amtrak and Boardman himself.

Of late, the focus has shifted to whether Corridor Capital, the Chicago-based firm that the Indiana Department of Transportation had designated to operate the Hoosier State is up to the task.

Corridor Capital was supposed to take over the Hoosier State on Oct. 1, but it didn’t have contracts signed to do that. So Amtrak agreed to continue operating the train through Jan. 31.

Boardman then traveled through Indiana aboard a special train to remind everyone of that and to profess that Amtrak really, really wants to operate the Hoosier State.

He even said that Amtrak would upgrade service on the train by providing Wi-Fi and business class service.

That, though, amounts to nothing more than adding an unstaffed café car and placing complimentary coffee, water bottles and pastries on the counter. Amtrak could have done that at any time, but chose not to do so. What does that say about how Amtrak views the Hoosier State?

A week later, Boardman was at it again, hinting that Corridor Capital might not be able to meet all of the various federal regulations pertaining to public health and safety matters.

Those may be legitimate issues, but are red herrings. Corridor Capital may find that adhering to federal regulations may be more complicated than it expected, but in the end they will likely get it done.

Whether Corridor Capital would be able to successfully operate a passenger train remains to be seen.

They’ve been suggesting a number of changes that will not necessarily be easy to implement, such as a faster schedule and more frequent service.

We’ll never know for sure until it gets a chance to show if it can do it. But will it? Not if Joe Boardman has his way.

After reading Boardman’s op-ed piece in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, I couldn’t help but think that what we are really seeing is the first round of a public relations campaign designed to deflect blame away from Amtrak if the Hoosier State folds early next year.

Boardman wants Corridor Capital to fail in order to forestall the possibility of other states signing on with private companies that say they can operate intercity rail passenger service.

In short, Boardman wants to maintain the status quo because that protects Amtrak’s interests.

It is not a sure thing that the Hoosier State will continue operating past Jan. 31, 2015, regardless of whether the operator is Amtrak or Corridor Capital.

Who will fund the Hoosier State next year and how much that will cost remains an open question.

If the city of Indianapolis really means it that it no longer wishes to fund the Hoosier State then will the other funding partners pick up the slack?

Even if all of the funding parties agree to continue funding the Hoosier State, for how long will that continue?

What the cities along the Hoosier State route probably really want is for INDOT to pick up funding the Hoosier State. Good luck with that.

INDOT probably really wants to hand the Hoosier State over to Corridor Capital and be done with it other than writing the checks. INDOT probably fantasizes that Corridor Capital will be so successful that neither it nor any of its local government partners will have to underwrite the train’s losses.

Indiana is a politically conservative state and INDOT has, historically, shown little interest in funding and overseeing passenger trains.

It has neither the experience nor the appetite to oversee rail passenger service that its brethren in nearby Illinois and Michigan have.

The Hoosier State might have died a long time ago had it not been for the fact that Amtrak uses it to ferry equipment between Chicago and the Beech Grove shops in suburban Indianapolis.

Sure, Amtrak could move equipment on the tri-weekly Chicago-New York Cardinal. But it is more convenient to do it on the Hoosier State because that train originates at the Grove.

Compared with the other Midwest corridor trains, the Hoosier State is an ugly step child, lacking the amenities found on those trains.

It doesn’t help that the Hoosier State is forced to endure a slow, circuitous route into Chicago that involves six railroads. That alone presents major challenges to anyone serious about developing the Chicago-Indianapolis corridor.

Neither Amtrak nor Corridor Capital will be able to do much about the Chicago-Indianapolis route.

Everyone seems to agree the route has, in theory, good potential for growth, but no one wants to spend the millions needed to develop it, particularly when it comes to finding a faster way in and out of Chicago.

You have to wonder if the Hoosier State saga is simply a game of all parties playing for time in the hopes that someone else will step forward to take control of the train, including the funding. It is the classical case of, to use a baseball expression, “I got it, you take it.”

Ideally, that would be INDOT and it still might do that. But I wouldn’t bet a business class ticket on the Hoosier State on it.

Commentary by Craig Sanders

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One Response to “Playing for Time in the Hoosier State Saga”

  1. James Says:

    Hi Craig,
    I will have to think on this for awhile before I open my mouth!
    Sooner or later I am bound to say something, even if it doesn’t
    mean a hill of beans.
    Jim

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