Operation of the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State by Iowa Pacific Holdings has reached the end of the first year of a two-year trial and the results are promising and concerning.
Under IP oversight, the average on-time performance has been 86 percent, which was better than the OT average of Amtrak trains of between 60 to 65 percent.
Ridership, though, has fallen by 11 percent since IP took over the quad-weekly train from Amtrak on Aug. 2, 2015.
The Hoosier State was racking up financial losses that were on track to reach $2 million a year.
On the other hand, ticket revenue has increased by 26 percent and during June the Hoosier State even turned a small profit on the strength of increases in patronage and revenue.
IP head Ed Ellis has attributed that turnaround to growth in business class passengers, who pay a premium to receive food and beverage service while riding in a dome car.
The Chicago-Indianapolis route is different from other intercity corridors in that IP and Amtrak both provide service over it.
Amtrak’s tri-weekly Chicago-New York Cardinal uses the route and the Hoosier State operates on days that the Cardinal does not.
Ellis told West Lafayette radio station WBAA that the improved timekeeping is a result of establishing personal relationships with Amtrak and every freight railroad that hosts the train.
“I think, if nothing else, just that level of daily attention has caused everybody else to pay daily attention to the train and has solved the problem,” Ellis said.
For its part, IP has focused on ensuring that the equipment is ready to go at departure time, thus eliminating late departures that can have a ripple effect.
“ . . . it’s when trains get out of slot that you get more host-related delays because they need to run freight trains. So leaving on time is important,” Ellis said.
The Hoosier State is not solely an IP train. Amtrak provides under contract the operating employees and does servicing in Chicago and Indianapolis.
IP provides the equipment and handles marketing and promotion although the train is shown on the Amtrak website and Amtrak sells tickets for it.
Funding comes from the Indiana Department of Transportation and five communities along the train’s route.
The Hoosier State costs about $2.7 million annually to operate. Eventually, all of the parties concerned would like to see it become more self-supporting financially. They would also like to see more service.
But Ellis said that will require additional sidings and signal work on the mostly-CSX route that would need to be paid for by the Indiana Department of Transportation.
“I think it’s obvious we need more trains, and the only way to do that is for the state to go to the freight railroads and say, ‘What does it take,’ and for the railroads to give us all a number and for us to decide if we can afford to do that,” Ellis said.
If Ellis had his way, he would create a new route into Chicago and use a different terminal.
What he has in mind is building a connection in Blue Island between the Metra line from Joliet to La Salle Street Station and the former Grand Trunk Western mainline that CSX now operates.
Writing on Train Orders.com, Ellis said that and other improvements could cost $500 million and cut the Chicago-Indianapolis running time to 3 hours, 20 minutes.
Ellis also would like to operate three daily roundtrips between the two cities.
He wants to trade Chicago terminals because Union Station is crowded but La Salle Street is not.
A new Chicago routing would eliminate running on tracks owned by Amtrak, Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific and the Belt Railway of Chicago. In the process, IP would gain a faster route into Chicago and eliminate a congestion- prone junction with the Indiana Harbor Belt in Dolton.
If the money was available today, Ellis figures it would take a year to 18 months to complete the track improvement work. Given the realities of the situation he said it would more likely take until 2020 to get the improvements made and train frequencies increased.
“There is a lot of spade work that has to be done between INDOT, the [Indiana] legislature and CSX on infrastructure improvement,” Ellis wrote on TO.
But he sees progress, noting that revenue in July 2016 was 70 percent more than that of the same month in 2015.
“ . . . so the effects of improved service are beginning to take hold. But there is a long way to go,” he said.
Continued political support for Hoosier State funding appears to be building.
Indiana lawmaker Tim Brown, a Crawfordsville Republican, is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which writes the state’s biennial budget.
He admits to having been skeptical at first about funding intercity rail passenger service, but after riding the Hoosier State he came away with a favorable impression.
“This experience showed me there is a desire, there is interest in continuing it and growing it, and so I’m more convinced now more than two years ago that it’s more appropriate to continue funding,” Brown told WBAA.
Brown said that although it is too early to say how much will be allotted for the Hoosier State when the next budget is hammered out in 2017, he expects legislators to approve a line item for passenger rail in the INDOT budget.