Ed Ellis has a simple idea how to boost ridership on the Hoosier State. It begins with a marketing effort that is rooted in giving people a reason to ride the train.
He expects to offer highly-marketed travel packages that will take passengers to sporting events and cultural attractions.
Ellis, who heads Iowa Pacific Holdings, told the Journal & Courier of Lafayette, Indiana, that travelers can be sorted into three groups: Those who need to get somewhere in a hurry, those who just need to get somewhere and those who are looking for a reason to go. The latter are much on Ellis’ mind these days.
“The way they ran trains back in the day, they spent a lot of time thinking about events and reasons people need to ride the train,” he said. “Substantial costs of running trains were paid for by people who didn’t have to go but wanted to go.”
Iowa Pacific is in the process of hiring employees to support the Hoosier State, including a marketing manager who will plan trips.
It won’t be just Hoosiers traveling to Chicago for the day. “You can be sure we’ll be selling Purdue football packages,” Ellis said.
Iowa Pacific will provide and maintain the passenger cars for the quad-weekly Chicago-Indianapolis train that will continue to be operated by Amtrak and funded by the Indiana Department of Transportation and the online communities that it serves.
The same route and communities are also served by Amtrak’s Chicago-New York Cardinal, which operates on the three days a week that the Hoosier State does not run.
Iowa Pacific also will provide food and beverage service, something that has had scant availability in recent years. Amtrak will provide engineers and conductors, and sell tickets.
Ellis said that he saw an opportunity throughout months of sometimes contentious negotiations among INDOT, Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration over operating the Hoosier State.
He is optimistic that the Chicago-Indianapolis route can become a self-supporting enterprise.
That vision is rooted in a railroad career that included a five-year tenure as a vice president at Amtrak between 996 to 2000.
As an example of what he meant by creating demand, Ellis said his company, which is also in the business of hauling freight, built an outdoor concert venue on top of a mountain near Alamosa, Colorado. The only way to get there was to ride an excursion train that Iowa Pacific operates.
“We created that (concert venue) to give people a reason to ride the train,” he said.
Ellis understand what he is up against marketing a train that doesn’t get anywhere in a hurry.
“What has to happen when you have a train that doesn’t provide fast frequent on-time service is you have to figure out how to get more people on the train,” he said.
Increasing service on the route is going to take about $500 million to be used for rebuilding the tracks. Finding that money will be tough going.
Yet such work is necessary if Ellis is going to reach his goal of 12 passenger trains a day.
Brian Farkas is a locomotive engineer and chairman of the Indiana legislative board of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.
“Some of his ideas are good, but I’m curious to see how he’s going to get $500 million when our legislators are reluctant to fund $3 million for the train,” Farkas said.
Some have pointed toward federal grants, including the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program.
“There is a renewed willingness on the part of Amtrak, CSX and INDOT to pursue economic development funding, including TIGER grants, to improve the rail infrastructure,” said Greater Lafayette Commerce member Arvid Olson.
“We do have a history of cooperation with railroads in this community,” added Liz Solberg, who oversaw Lafayette’s relocation of Norfolk Southern and CSX tracks to create a rail corridor adjacent to the Wabash River.
Douglas Yerkeson, a rail supporter and partner at Faegre Baker Daniels law firm in Indianapolis, is impressed with Ellis’ approach.
“Having a balanced transportation system is critical to economic development for the state,” he said. “And given the government of Indiana’s interest in partnering with a private company, this may be the impetus for culture change.”
Dana Smith, retired head of Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, agreed. “If Iowa Pacific can pull this off, it’s going to be an absolute positive for this community,” he said.
Last year, Vicki Burch, a West Lafayette city councilwoman, criticized the prospect of state-subsidized rail transit.
But now she wants to give Ellis and his ideas a chance. “We won’t know until we try,” she said.