Posts Tagged ‘Chicago-Indianapolis corridor’

Amtrak’s Hoosier State to Make Final Trips on Sunday

June 29, 2019

Amtrak’s Hoosier State boards passengers at Indianapolis Union Station on June 25 during its last week of operation.

The Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State will make it last trips on Sunday.

Amtrak is “suspending” the train effective July 1 because the State of Indiana declined to renew its funding.

Nos. 850 and 851 operate on the days that the Chicago-New York Cardinal does not operate.

From Indianapolis to Chicago, No. 50 runs on Monday, Thursday and Saturday. In the other direction No. 51 operates on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

The Cardinal will continue to operate after the Hoosier State is discontinued.

The Hoosier State appeared to be doomed once Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb sent a budget request to the state legislature last February that omitted funding for the train, which was also funded by various online cities and counties.

Holcomb cited falling ridership for ending the funding.

The Hoosier State began in October 1980 as a demonstration route. It was discontinued in September 1995 as part of a major Amtrak service restructuring and retrenchment but reinstated in July 1998 in part to give Amtrak a more reliable means of ferrying equipment between Chicago and the Beech Grove shops in suburban Indianapolis.

The Hoosier State has skated on thin ice since 2013 when Indiana became the last state to agree to a funding plan mandated by the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 that required state and local governments to pay for Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles.

Initially the Indiana Department of Transportation chose Corridor Capitol, a Chicago-based rail passenger services development company, to manage and operate the Hoosier State.

However, INDOT severed ties with Corridor Capitol in November 2014 and Amtrak continued to operate Nos. 850 and 851 on a short-term contract.

INDOT said the following spring that the Hoosier State would end on April 1, 2015, due to regulations of the Federal Railroad Administration that would have required the state to act as a rail carrier, despite the state owning no tracks or trains.

INDOT appealed to the FRA and the Hoosier State continued to operate under

a short-term agreement.

In August 2015, INDOT reached a four-year agreement with Iowa Pacific and Amtrak to operate the train.

IP was to provide providing and maintain the rolling stock as well as provide food service and marketing.

Amtrak would provide ticketing services and train operating crews.

Iowa Pacific said in January 2017 it was withdrawing from the contract after INDOT refused to increase its financial compensation.

Starting March 1, 2017, the Hoosier State became an all Amtrak operation.

Efforts to emend the budget in the legislature to put back funding for the Hoosier State failed and Amtrak said in April that the train would be “suspended” on July 1.

At one point Amtrak said it has reached an agreement with CSX to reduce the running time and that the Hoosier State would be rescheduled in late April to provide better times at Indianapolis.

But those changes were never made and it is unclear if they will eventually be applied to the Cardinal.

The Hoosier State is thus poised to become the Amtrak train to be discontinued in several years and the first to end due to PRIAA requirements.

Divorcing Amtrak is Hard to Do

February 6, 2017

The great Hoosier State privatization experiment is about to end. It started in July 2015 when Iowa Pacific Holdings began “operating” the quad-weekly Chicago-Indianapolis train.

On TransportationI put the word “operating” in quotation marks because, technically, IP did not “operate” the Hoosier State.

In practice, it was a partnership with Amtrak. IP provided the equipment and marketing support, and was in charge of on-board service.

But the operating crews were Amtrak employees and the nation’s passenger carrier handled the relationships with the host railroads, primarily CSX.

As it turned out, Amtrak has received most of the money paid by INDOT and its partner communities that fund the service.

For a while, Iowa Pacific received many kudos because of what it wasn’t, which is Amtrak.

Under Amtrak auspices, the Hoosier State was a bare-bone operation used to shuttle equipment between Chicago and the Beech Grove Shops in suburban Indianapolis.

By comparison, the IP operation of the Hoosier State was a luxury train, with business class, meals freshly prepared on board, and a full-length dome car for those willing to pay extra fare.

IP head Ed Ellis – who once worked at Amtrak – talked about expanding service and the need to cut the travel time.

He said IP would aggressively market the service, seeking to build markets that Amtrak had ignored.

One marketing gambit IP talked about was running a bus between the Crawfordsville station and Bloomington, the home of Indiana University.

IP correctly recognized the college market is a good source of passengers, but apparently the Bloomington shuttle never got on the road.

Iowa Pacific had a lot of people rooting for it to succeed with the Hoosier State, many of whom believe that a private operator can provide better service than Amtrak.

Some also want to believe that a private operator can make money on passenger service by providing better and more economical service than Amtrak. Ellis and IP apparently believed that, too, but the Hoosier State didn’t yield the expected financial returns for IP.

Ellis always knew the daily service and faster trains he desired hinged upon the willingness of government entities within Indiana to provide the capital funding needed to upgrade the slow meandering route used by the Hoosier State and Amtrak’s tri-weekly Chicago-New York Cardinal.

If IP could demonstrate that the Hoosier State was a success despite its route limitations, then perhaps Indiana officials would be amendable to funding track work in the same manner that the departments of transportation in neighboring Michigan and Illinois have.

But that has always been a long shot. Indiana has never been as supportive of intercity passenger rail as its neighbors.

Amtrak will take back the Hoosier State in Toto on March 1. Although INDOT said it has a verbal agreement that some of IP’s services will be retained, that is not a sure thing.

It remains to be seen if INDOT will seek an operator other than Amtrak and, for that, matter, how much longer the state and on-line communities are willing to pony up money to underwrite the operating losses.

One key take away from the IP Hoosier State experiment is that divorcing Amtrak is more difficult than it might seem.

IP Looking Ahead as Hoosier State Celebrates First Year of Operation Under its Direction

August 31, 2016

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.

Iowa PacificUnder 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.

INDOT, Iowa Pacific, Amtrak Reach an Agreement on 2-year Contract to Operate Hoosier State

August 4, 2015

Terms of the contract between the Indiana Department of Transportation and Iowa Pacific Holdings call for the state to receive 25 percent of any operating profits that the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State earns.

It is one of many details contained in a contract signed last weekend pertaining to the quad-weekly train.

Amtrak, which had operated the Hoosier State through July 31, was also a party to the contract because Amtrak employees will continue to make up the operating crews for the train. Amtrak is also working with the host railroads and managing ticket reservations for the train.

INDOT will reimburse Amtrak for expenses not covered by ticket revenue with Amtrak providing the state with any excess revenue.

INDOT is expected to pay $254,527 per month for the Hoosier State while Crawfordsville, Lafayette, Rensselaer, Tippecanoe County and West Lafayette will pay a combined $21,194 per month for the service.

The contract expires on June 30, 2017, but INDOT has an option to extend it up to four additional years.

Iowa Pacific is furnishing the locomotives and passenger cars while also providing maintenance, food service and marketing.

The first trips on Aug. 2 under Iowa Pacific auspices suffered the same type of delays that often hindered the Amtrak-operated Hoosier State.

Both trips were delayed by freight train congestion at Union Pacific’s Yard Center in Dolton, Illinois.

The outbound trip from Chicago was 9 minutes late leaving Union Station because Amtrak delivered the equipment to the depot 25 minutes late.

CSX held the Indianapolis-bound train at Dyer, Indiana, for a half-hour due to an automobile accident south of town that did not involve the Hoosier State.

Further glitches occurred when Amtrak sent patrons on the first runs what Trains magazine described as “ominous email and telephone message warnings to passengers.”

One passenger told the magazine’s passenger travel correspondent that when she called Amtrak back to ask what the email meant she was initially transferred to a closed customer service office. Another Amtrak agent checked with a supervisor and told Hill that she would be riding “a less luxurious train.”

That assertion was laughable on its face. Under Amtrak operation, the Hoosier State offered coaches and nothing else. The train did not offer food service or onboard Wi-Fi service.

However, one of the three Iowa Pacific cars assigned to the Hoosier State is a former Santa Fe full-width dome lounge offering food service.

Eventually, the dome section will be reserved for business-class passengers who will be served hot meals and drinks.

For now, though, anyone can sit in dome lounge Summit View. Trains correspondent Bob Johnston reported that the car features white tablecloths and serves breakfast and dinner.

The top prices range between $6 and $8, respectively. The “Blue Plate Special” on the trip to Indianapolis was sautéed chicken breast. Other choices included Chicken Caprese Panini, an entrée salad, a turkey club sandwich, and cheese or pepperoni pizza.

“For the first month, everybody gets to come in here and say, ‘wow, is this cool?’ ” Iowa Pacific president Ed Ellis said. “So then when the fare goes up, we hope they’ll say, ‘yeah, I want to be sitting up there.’ ”

He was referring to the launch of business class service at a yet unannounced date.

Iowa Pacific has directed that two tickets on each Hoosier State trip are to be sold for $1 apiece. Normally, an adult “saver” ticket between Chicago and Indianapolis is $24 on either the Hoosier State or Amtrak’s Chicago-New York Cardinal.

Ellis described the $1 fares as a conversation starter with college students who might have used competing Megabus service, which similarly offers a handful of fares at the same price.

Iowa Pacific has hired a full-time marketing manager who will be supported by IP’s own Chicago-based tourist train and Pullman Rail Journeys marketing operation.

The Hoosier State marketing efforts are heavily focused on stimulating business from intermediate communities along the route, in particular Purdue University in West Lafayette.

Ellis said Iowa Pacific sees Purdue as a largely untapped market. IP also wants to launch a connecting bus service between Crawfordsville and Bloomington to reach the Indiana University market.

“We’re treating this as one of the world’s nicest excursion trains between two great Midwest destinations,” Ellis said.

Iowa Pacific Make First Runs of Hoosier State

August 3, 2015

Iowa Pacific operated its first trips of the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State on Sunday, Aug. 2, taking over the train from Amtrak.

Trains magazine reported that the only potential snag might be completion of a switch relocation project on CSX in Indianapolis. The switch leads to a Iowa Pacific operated service facility.

Amtrak’s contract to operate the Hoosier State was to expire on July 31. Because the Hoosier State operations on the four days a week that the Chicago-New York Cardinal does not operate, it was not scheduled to run on Saturday, Aug. 1.

The Cardinal operated to and from Chicago from Indianapolis on Saturdays.

Iowa Pacific will furnish motive power and rolling stock for the train as well as marketing and on-board service support.

The operating crews will continue to be Amtrak employees.

Since March, there have been a series of inspections of the GP40FH-2 locomotives and passengers cars that Iowa Pacific plans to use. A test train traveled the route on June 28.

Iowa Pacific plans to offer onboard Wi-Fi service, a dome with café service downstairs, and leg-rest seating in heritage coaches.

Amtrak had coach-only service aside from a three-month period between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31, 2014, when it offered Wi-Fi and business class seating, but no café service.

Trains noted that the Cardinal operates with a “Diner-lite” Amfleet II café car that also serves breakfast and dinner as well as snack bar food.

Full meal table seating preference goes to sleeping car passengers and accommodating those patrons can be a challenge when Nos. 50 and 51 operates with two sleeping cars as it does through the spring, summer and fall months.

The Cardinal does not offer Wi-Fi to coach passengers.

Fares for the Chicago-Indianapolis market have varied widely. On the Cardinal, Amtrak seeks to maximize long-distance revenue over the Chicago-Indianapolis market.

The top-priced “flexible” Indianapolis-Chicago adult coach fare is $48. Most seats aboard for Amtrak’s Hoosier State have sold at the “Saver” price of $24.

For the first month of its operation of the Hoosier State, Iowa Pacific plans to allow passengers to sit in the dome and to pay for meals and beverages served there instead of having food included in the ticket price.

“We want to give people a chance to sample our version of business class,” which will be similar to breakfasts and dinners served on Pullman Rail Journeys excursions from Chicago to New Orleans and other destinations,” said Iowa Pacific President Ed Ellis. “It will be quite different than other Midwest business class service, which only includes a newspaper and a soft drink or coffee.”

INDOT, FRA Reach Pact on Passenger Safety Rules

April 7, 2015

The efforts of the Indiana Department of Transportation to improve the Hoosier State have cleared another hurdle.

The agency and the Federal Railroad Administration reached an agreement on “clear lines of accountability for passenger rail safety and accessibility.”

Meeting in Indianapolis with FRA staff, INDOT Commissioner Karl Browning said that the two sides discussed the roles and responsibilities of each party connected with the Chicago-Indianapolis train.

Indiana wants to contract with Amtrak and Iowa Pacific Holdings to operate the service and both will be expected to meet FRA requirements.

INDOT will designate a staff member responsible for overseeing contract compliance. “INDOT and the FRA share the guiding principles of access to safe mobility,” Browning said in a statement. “Based on these guiding principles, we are both committed to a path toward continuing the Hoosier State service.”

Talks are continuing to reach agreements between INDOT and Amtrak and Iowa Pacific. Amtrak, FRA, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration are continuing to inspect the Iowa Pacific equipment that is expected to be assigned to the Hoosier State.

The Hoosier State operates four times weekly, running on days that the tri-weekly Chicago-New York Cardinal does not operate.

Currently, the Hoosier State is being underwritten by INDOT and many of the communities that it serves.

Amtrak is expected to serve as the primary operator, working with host railroads, providing train and engine crews, and managing reservation and ticketing. Aside from rolling stock and locomotives, Iowa Pacific would provide equipment maintenance, on-board services and marketing.

Hoosier State to Continue Through April 30

March 14, 2015

The beleaguered Hoosier State, the quad-weekly Amtrak train between Chicago and Indianapolis, has survived yet another brush with the grim reaper for another 30 days.

The Indiana Department of Transportation said on Friday that the train will continue operating through April 30 while the Federal Railroad Administration reviews a policy that it had said it would impose on Indiana that would have made the state a “railroad.”

A week earlier, INDOT Commission Karl Browning had issued a news release saying the Hoosier State would make its last trips on April 1. He cited an FRA policy that an entity funding rail passenger service would be responsible for the FRA passenger safety standards.

INDOT said that acting FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg told Browning during a telephone call that her agency would reconsider that policy.

“It is not clear that the FRA will change its mind,” Browning says. “Because Ms. Feinberg committed to reviewing this, we want to give the FRA another opportunity to consider the problems Indiana has been airing.”

INDOT doesn’t own any tracks or railroad equipment and Browning said the FRA’s position would increase costs and paperwork for INDOT.

The department along with most of the communities served by the train have funded it during the past year. INDOT had been negotiating with Amtrak and Iowa Pacific Holdings on a long-term contract to operate the train.

In the meantime, Indiana U.S. Sen. Dan Coats has written to the FRA asking it to reconsider its position that if INDOT continues to fund the Hoosier State that that would make it a “railroad.”

Coats wrote that “INDOT does not fit any common-sense definition of a ‘railroad,’ so the communities along the HSL are rightly puzzled by the FRA’s decision.”

INDOT was close to a deal in which Amtrak would operate the trains and Iowa Pacific would supply the cars. But INDOT officials said if the state has to act as the railroad, it would have to carry expensive liability insurance and hire new staff.

“INDOT is not in a position to assume either the additional liability or the regulatory burdens that a designation of ‘railroad carrier’ would impose,” Coats wrote.

In 2008, Congress voted to end funding for Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles. That left states to fund intercity rail on their own.

The FRA has said that states that oversee rail passenger service are required to act as rail carriers to ensure that safety standards are followed.

Another public official who has also assailed the FRA position is State Rep. Randy Truitt of West Lafayette, who represents several portions of Tippecanoe County.

“The Hoosier State Line provides a vital service for Hoosiers in the Greater Lafayette area and across Indiana. I was disheartened to learn about the new rules imposed by the Federal Railway Administration that could potentially end this service in April, which would be devastating to our local economy,” Truitt said in a statement.

Truitt has been an active supporter of the Hoosier State and has sponsored House Bill 1217, which would appropriate $3 million annually to fund the train.

Truitt hopes that INDOT, by working with the Federal Railway Administration, will eventually be able to find a solution that allows the Hoosier State to continue running.

“The preservation of Indiana’s transportation infrastructure is vital to economic growth, and I will continue to work with state and local leaders as well as INDOT to find ways to keep the Hoosier State Line functioning,” Truitt said.

The Hoosier State makes intermediate stops in Indiana in Crawfordsville, Lafayette, Rensselaer and Dyer. The route is served by the tri-weekly Chicago-New York Cardinal on days that the Hoosier State does not operate.

Hoosier State to Make Last Trips on April 1

March 6, 2015

Faced with a decree from the Federal Railroad Administration that supporting an Amtrak train makes the state a railroad, the Indiana Department of Transportation has decided to get out of the passenger train business.

The department said Friday that it will end its support of the quad-weekly Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State and the train will be discontinued. The last day of operation will be Wednesday, April 1.

Discontinuance of the Hoosier State will leave only the tri-weekly Chicago-New York Cardinal left on the route.

INDOT said in a news release that the FRA is using Indiana as a test of its policy that an entity involved with a rail operation is a railroad despite the fact that it owns no tracks or passenger equipment.

“Passenger rail providers and the host railroads are already required to comply with FRA rules,” INDOT Commissioner Karl Browning says. “Requiring a redundant layer of bureaucracy would not create improvements in passenger rail service or safety, it would only increase taxpayer costs.”

INDOT had been working with Amtrak and at least two private service providers during the past year to save the Hoosier State service.

The news release said the agency had been making progress in negotiating long-term agreements with Amtrak and Iowa Pacific Holdings.

Amtrak would have served as the primary operator of the train and worked with the host railroads as well as provided train and engine crews, and managed reservation and ticketing.

Iowa Pacific would have provided the train equipment, train maintenance, on-board services and marketing.

INDOT said it was modeling its vision for the Hoosier State after Amtrak’s Piedmont service, which operates between Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation owns the track over which the Piedmont operates and contracted with Amtrak and private contractors.

NCDOT sued the FRA in 2008 when it attempted to place the same impediments on the Piedmont service.

INDOT said it was unsuccessful in convincing the FRA to formally reconsider its decision. Copies of INDOT’s correspondence with FRA and letter of intent with Iowa Pacific are available at http://www.in.gov/indot/3200.htm.

Until fall 2013, the Hoosier State had been part of Amtrak’s basic route network. However, Congress voted in 2008 to end federal funding for certain Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles.

Local governments in most communities served by the Hoosier State in tandem with INDOT agreed to fund the Hoosier State for a year.

That agreement was later extended until April to give the parties time to negotiate a longer-term contract.

Six years later, the FRA is developing rules governing states that now support the cost of passenger rail services.

Under new rules that the FRA sought to test with Indiana, all states that support passenger rail services would be considered railroad carriers.

Calling this a “burdensome interpretation,” INDOT said it will exposes states to significant increases in cost, paperwork and liability, including:

• Liability for the actions of passenger rail providers up to $200 million for each occurrence of injury, death or property damage,

• Hiring new staff to monitor plans and programs in compliance with federal rules, and

• Interpretation that state employees are rail employees, subject to retirement and employer liability rules and limits.

In Indiana, the Hoosier State as well as the Cardinal serve Indianapolis, Crawfordsville, Lafayette, Rensselaer and Dyer. The Cardinal also serves Connorsville, Ind.