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Train Advocates Hope Hoosier State Will Help More Service Gain Steam

Stan Jastrzebski

In the crossroads of America, it's pretty easy to get around by driving or flying. But if you want to take the train, your options are limited.

Now, public-private deals such as the Hoosier State train are trying to change that.

Proponents of more rail service hope the Indianapolis-to-Chicago line so far will help prove their point to lawmakers.

On a Friday morning, the Hoosier State train is snaking north between Dyer and the Illinois state line. About 90 passengers sleep in their seats, eat breakfast in the dining car or use free WiFi.

Credit Annie Ropeik / Indiana Public Broadcasting
Indiana Public Broadcasting
Amtrak welder Ed Ufkes rode the Hoosier State with his dad to Chicago, then caught another Amtrak train to Seattle.

  One of them is Amtrak welder Ed Ufkes, who's taking his dad on vacation.  

"We're gonna take the train to Chicago, and then Chicago to Seattle," he says. "It'll be about two and a half days."

Most passenger trains through Indiana start or end in Chicago, the busiest rail hub in the country.

Ufkes says he wishes Indiana would invest more of its own money -- and seek more federal help -- to move some of that traffic through Indianapolis.

"Have a train run down to Bloomington for IU students, trains to Lafayette, Cincinnati, could've gone to Louisville," he says. "Everything could have been moved there and we could have taken all the congestion out of Chicago."

To see if passenger rail can work in Indiana, he says, look no further than the Hoosier State.

It's funded in part by the state, and jointly run by the private Iowa Pacific Holdings, and public Amtrak -- a three-way, public-private partnership, on freight company-owned rails.

Credit Stan Jastrzebski / WBAA
An Amtrak conductor watches Indiana flash by from the northbound Hoosier State.

  The Hoosier State took over part of Amtrak's Cardinal line in 2015. According to Amtrak's latest financial data, the new service was no longer operating at a deficit by the end of its first year.

But House Transportation Committee Chair Rep. Ed Soliday (Valparaiso-R) says his roads task force won't have time for other modes of travel.

"To load them up with that is almost a distraction," he said in a recent interview with Indiana Public Broadcasting's Brandon Smith.

Todd Barton, the mayor of Crawfordsville, where the Hoosier State stops, argues trains aren't a distraction from road issues -- they're a potential solution.

"Interstate highways lose money," he said on WBAA's Ask the Mayor. "The more we can do to shift some of that traffic off to these other avenues, the better off we are."

Along with the Hoosier State, Indiana Department of Transportation spokesman Will Wingfield says the state helps fund the South Shore line from Chicago to South Bend. They're applying federal dollars to create train service from Porter County to Illinois. And they're helping local rail advocates seek funding to connect Chicago, Fort Wayne and Columbus, Ohio by rail.

But Indiana Passenger Rail Alliance President Steve Coxhead wants the state to go further.

Credit Annie Ropeik / Indiana Public Broadcasting
Indiana Public Broadcasting
The Hoosier State makes its way into a rail yard outside Chicago's Union Station, with the city's skyline visible in the distance.

"There seems to be reluctance, now, to engage with the 21st century," Coxhead says.

He argues the Hoosier State's steadily climbing ridership is proof that Indiana residents want rail service. And he says it would only take $3 million to add two round trips a day to the line -- a big step, since he says research shows passengers place the most value on reliable, frequent service.

"That moves us forward by light years from where we are today," Coxhead says.

On the Friday night Hoosier State back from Chicago, there's at least one regular who also hopes trains like this will catch on. Tom O'Dowd is drinking a beer and chatting with neighbors in the domed business class car, with its white tablecloths and fresh-cooked food.

"It's a wonderful linear way to travel," he says. "I think this is sort of something we need to explore, and need to invest in."

Credit Annie Ropeik / Indiana Public Broadcasting
Indiana Public Broadcasting
Iowa Pacific steward Matt Dockham prepares drinks aboard the Hoosier State's domed business class car.

O'Dowd takes the train every weekend, to volunteer at the Wolf Park sanctuary outside Lafayette. He considers the town his second home, and even with upgraded roads -- or self-driving cars -- he says he'll always prefer the train to get there.

"You know, there's a more culturally profound experience to be had here," he says. "I don't want to overstate it -- we're all just on a train together -- but the fact is ... this is a place where stories are told, and have been told."

The state has not yet started renegotiating the Hoosier State's contract with Amtrak and IPH. Wingfield, the INDOT spokesman, says they're waiting on the legislature's funding decision. The current contract expires next June.

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