A clearer picture of the progress and the challenges for the Hoosier State passenger rail service is emerging as the books close on Amtrak’s first fiscal year of operating the route in conjunction with the state, the cities served by the line, and private contractor Iowa Pacific Holdings.
At the end of August, Amtrak reported ticket sales of $886,000 for the first 11 months of the 2016 fiscal year, a 30 percent increase over the previous year.
Ridership was down 3.5 percent, reflecting a significant decline during the first seven months, followed by four consecutive months of increases.
On-time performance was 83 percent through August, up from 65 percent the previous year.
Indiana Department of Transportation spokesman Will Wingfield says that’s a vast improvement from four years ago when the federal government stopped funding the 196-mile, four-day-a-week Amtrak line between Indianapolis and Chicago.
He says those statistics will help INDOT make the case for continued state funding when the legislature convenes in January to start work on the next two-year state budget. The state and five local governments served by the line currently pay $3 million a year to keep the train running.
“From INDOT’s perspective, it’s exceeded expectations,” Wingfield says. “I don’t think that you could find a rail service anywhere in the nation that has had this type of transformative change in such a small time.”
Wingfield also says INDOT plans to negotiate new two-year contracts with Amtrak serving as operator, Iowa Pacific Holdings providing rail cars, and funding from Lafayette, West Lafayette, Tippecanoe County, Crawfordsville and Rensselaer. The current agreements expire June 30, 2017.
Representatives of those groups talked about the future of the line Saturday during a meeting hosted by the Indiana Passenger Rail Alliance and the Rail Users Network, a national rail advocacy group.
Organizer Phil Streby says he decided to hold the meeting in Lafayette to keep attention focused on the Hoosier State, which operates when the route isn't served by Amtrak's Cardinal, a long-distance train between New York and Chicago.
“There are still people getting on the train on a monthly basis that are unaware the train even exists.” Streby says. “There are people unaware the train is still being threatened with non-existence.
“For those who have been on the train, they say, ‘Oh, the train is here. What more do we need to do?’ Well, we need to keep it here.”
To attract more riders and make the service sustainable, Streby says a second train must be added so passengers could travel from Chicago to Indiana and return to Illinois on the same day.
To accommodate more trains, he says additional trackage is needed on the CSX freight lines traveled by the Hoosier State.
To obtain federal grants and funding for track upgrades, he says state and local governments, as well as the private sector, must continue to cooperate and develop a long-term plan.
“That will help us to join Chicago, Indianapolis, maybe even Ft. Wayne, Louisville, into a consolidated economic engine that would further drive the economy here in the Midwest,” Streby says.