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Amtrak Hoosier State Saved, Now What?

Union Station in DT Indy (image source: Curt Ailes)

Union Station in DT Indy (image source: Curt Ailes)

In case it has escaped notice, earlier this week INDOT struck an agreement with Amtrak to preserve Amtrak’s Hoosier State service for a year with the possibility of extending it under the same terms for an additional 4 months. ┬áIf the Hoosier State service had been cancelled, one of a number of short Amtrak routes across the country set to expire this month if states did not pick up the tab for their operation, the event could have spelled doom for long range passenger rail service for Indiana. The rhetoric goes that it is much easier to improve a service than it is to resurrect a dead one.

Crisis averted.

Mega Bus in DT Indy (image credit: Curt Ailes)

Mega Bus in DT Indy (image credit: Curt Ailes)

So now what? The service is still crumby at best with scheduled departure times from Indy (to Chicago) at 6am, 4 times a week and comparative arrival times in Indy (from Chicago) of 11:50pm. Furthermore, the duration of the trip is a scheduled 5 hours+. Most would agree that these time tables do not represent an optimum way of travelling to and from Chicago, especially when Megabus offers a comparatively quicker travel time, several departure options a day and is cheaper. Automobile travel is competitive as well although, when calculating gasoline and parking the economics, become murky. Even still, a car trip to an outer Metra station and $1.50 charge for parking for the day represent a great value and, if time proper, still quicker than Amtrak.

Metra Commuter Train (image credit: Curt Ailes)

Metra Commuter Train (image credit: Curt Ailes)

So now what? Is there a way to improve time tables to make the Hoosier State more desirable? Travel time aside, if the train left at say 8am, would the Hoosier State become more marketable? Amtrak still has a value proposition in that it IS a train (and who doesn’t like riding the train?) and it offers the opportunity to let loose the wheel and get work done while Amtrak does the travelling. Further, there are no parking costs associated with taking the train and a later departure time from Indy would insure that using IndyGo to get to Union Station is a possible option for arriving downtown. What about increased frequency? Perhaps a midday departure as well?

A number of suggestions are valid that include different departure times and more frequency that would make the Hoosier State far for marketable than it currently is today. The next couple of months could see a louder conversation regarding service here in Indiana as the threat of losing the service has shown through media and public commentary that there is clear support for passenger rail.

 

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11 Responses to “ “Amtrak Hoosier State Saved, Now What?”

  1. ahow628 says:

    Before we get going, just a few numbers and whatnot:
    1) $3M was needed to keep the service going. INDOT’s annual budget is $2.1B. That means that this service needed 0.15% of INDOT’s annual budget to continue operations. 99.85% was still going to go toward roads (an exaggeration, I suppose, but not by much).

    2) INDOT stated that the reason they weren’t going to fund it was because it would be a poor business decision. Amazing that they can speak out of both sides of their mouths like that. INDOT, please show me a road in Indiana that has a net positive operating cost. The Indiana Tollway might be the only possible candidate but we sold that off for realized capital gain so now it is definitely out of the running. No other road in the entire state can pay its own way. Yet, we expect an ignored rail link to pay its own way. I get the feeling that INDOT is not really concerned with good business decisions.

    That being said, I’m happy to see that service was preserved for now and I think it is fair that they demanded improvements by Amtrak as part of the deal.

    -Departures and arrivals need to at more convenient times. I would recommend maybe 7:30a departure and 7:30p arrival.

    -More departures and arrivals, especially on certain days of the week. For example, a Friday afternoon or evening departure and a Sunday morning/afternoon arrival would be nice. That would give you all day Saturday in Chicago.

    -Wait times are terrible on this line. When we went, there was nearly two hours of the trip that was spent either stopped or at less than 10mph. Unfortunately, the train runs on freight lines so this is holding it back. Maybe alternative departure times could allow for scheduling during freight off-peak.

    -I believe the train between Chicago and Champaign runs at a top speed of 110mph. At that speed, the trip to Chicago, including stops, would be around 3 hours.

    I’ll just add my Amtrak experience from our April Chicago trip. For our family of 5 (me, my wife, our twin 4yos, and newborn) the fare was $184 total. We paid an additional $27 when we arrived in Chicago for two 7-day CTA fare cards. Parking in the unsecured lot by our riverfront hotel was $35 per day (we were there for 6 days). Secured was parking was $50 per day. The train was better than megabus for us because our kids could walk around, the bathrooms were not cramped and gross, and they could set their tablets on the tray tables and watch a movie the whole way. Loved the experience but the early departure made for grumpy kids and they started getting restless after the second movie when we were going slowly through the southside of Chicago.

  2. Idyllic Indy says:

    One thing to consider about the early departure time is that it is scheduled that way to provide consistency with the Cardinal Line (coming from NYC) that departs Indy toward Chicago the other three days of the week that the Hoosier State line isn’t running. Not saying it has to remain that way. Not sure who even rides these trains or if there is anyone who rides it multiple times per week to where they would be depending on the consistent departure times.

    If we could get service on the Cardinal Line to increase to seven days per week (which wouldn’t require a local subsidy) and then increase the Hoosier State to seven days a week, perhaps a more convenient departure time could be added which would boost ridership with twice/day service.

    • ahow628 says:

      I like both of these ideas, but I think they are dead in the water until service is faster. Nearly two hours of waiting is just too much downtime. Twice daily as your describe would be amazing if they could get travel time down to 4 hours (or even better 3.5 hours on parity with Megabus).

  3. Indymoon says:

    Upgrade the tracks to allow higher speeds.

  4. Alan B says:

    Totally agree about downtimes on this line. I had to be in Champaign last week for a meeting before heading to Chicago for two days of work, and I decided to try the train instead of the drive given the parking expense @ahow6289 noted.

    Free long-term parking at the Champaign Amtrak station, $14 bargain advance fares (each way), and a fast 2.5 train ride with only about 5 stops. It was fantastic.

    Train CHM-CHI at 10 a.m. on Wednesday was about 60% full. 4 p.m. return on Friday was 100% sold.

  5. Not Impressed says:

    The Hoosier State is worthless. It takes longer than Megabus to get to downtown Chicago, when it should be a two-hour ride to Union Station. It leaves at an unreasonable hour, and it goes all the way out to Crawfordsville.

    Worthless.

  6. J. England says:

    A plan that I have promoted (without much progress) is to offer a “whistle stop” at the junction of North Perimeter Road and the termination of South Girls School Road, just south of the US 40 West Washington bus stop. This is a high security area with frequent airport police patrols along the well maintained, lighted, and plowed road. It would be a 5″ run from the taxi stand at the airport terminal, and airport rent a car and hotels are close. The adjacent bike lane seems better than many.I believe it becomes the “Pennsy trail” heading west through Plainfield,where less expensive motels are also located. This would be a much better place to board the train if you are from the west side, Hendricks county, etc. Obviously this would be a good place to get off if you travel from, say Lafayette to the suburbs. As it stands now the city wants EVERYONE to get on/off downtown, regardless of activities there or distance to travel. I have been told Amtrak is bike friendly, esp. when compared to flying or Megabus. FYI Amtrak will NOT permit any downtown-Ben Davis commuter traffic, but that’s not the market we are seeking. It may not be a massive traffic generator, but it would add volume. I suspect a carport, paved parking lot,extra streetlight, and sign saying “Mayor Ballard Multimodal International Transportation Terminal” could be built by volunteers for 1k, or government for 1 mil. C&O Historical Society have a scale model of a 1900 whistle stop that might be the basis of the building – not a replica, but “styled after”. BTW there is no non rush hour time on the line north of Davis / airport.

  7. Eric says:

    Going into the future, their will be states that have exceptional rail transit (blue) and states that just have buses (red). Good luck poaching all those Fortune 500 companies from Chicago, IN politicians.

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