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.
I 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.