Amtrak Lobbying to Save Hoosier State

Amtrak has been lobbying the Indiana General Assembly for continued support of its Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State but thus far to no avail.

It announced last month that it will in late April cut the running time by 15 minutes in the hopes of boosting ridership and cutting operating expenses.

But legislators who favor the train say that hasn’t been enough to change enough minds at the Statehouse to continue funding the train beyond June 30.

“Amtrak has been working the halls with their announcement of reducing travel time by 15 minutes and saving the state $72,000 annually,” said Rep. Sharon Negele. “Unfortunately, that’s not enough to swing the pendulum. I know there are some folks still investigating federal grant dollars that could possibly cover operating costs and capital improvements, but at this point it appears to be a Hail Mary.”

Negele is the financial officer for the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission, which advocates for passenger rail improvements.

She said fighting for continue Hoosier State funding is “an uphill battle” at the Statehouse.

Amtrak’s vice president for state-supported services, Joe McHugh, said the passengers carrier knows it has a tough fight to save state funding for the Hoosier State, which operates on the four days a week that the Chicago-New York Cardinal does not run in Indiana.

He called Chicago-Indianapolis a tough corridor because the driving time is faster than the rail travel time.

“We’re not particles trapped in amber here,” McHugh said. “We think about and worry about this [Hoosier State] train on a daily basis. And we want it to be successful.

“I completely understand the fact that taxpayers of Indiana are paying money for this train. And there’s a lot of demand for that money, so we need to prove that we are doing everything we can to make this a viable and relevant service for the people in Indianapolis and along the route to Chicago.”

From the perspective of the Indiana Department of Transportation, the sticking point for continued Hoosier State funding is declining ridership.

In fiscal year 2014, 33,930 passengers rode the Hoosier State, but during FY 2018 that had fallen to 27,876, a 17.8 percent decrease.

INDOT spokesman Scott Manning said his agency calculated that revenue per rider during FY 2019 is $32.85, with a state and local subsidy cost of $100.89 per rider.

“Where we’ve been, there has not been the increase in ridership needed,” Manning said.

Manning said INDOT officials do not believe that cutting 15 minutes from the running time on the 196-mile route will significantly boost the ridership to a level where the state’s per-ticket funding will come down.”

Indiana began funding the Hoosier State since 2015 when a federal law mandating states to pay for trains traveling less than 750 miles took effect.

Although some corridor service has been underwritten by states since Amtrak’s inception, some corridors, most notably Chicago-St. Louis and Chicago-Detroit, had long had service that was considered part of Amtrak’s basic route network and thus was underwritten by the passenger carrier’s budget.

The Hoosier State was the last Midwest corridor train to receive state and local government funding.

INDOT spends $3 million annually for the train while local governments along the line chip in a collective $500,000.

This past January Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb submitted a budget proposal to the legislature that ended the state’s funding for the Hoosier State.

The House went along with that and even voted to reject an amendment by Rep. Chris Campbell to restore the funding.

The Lafayette Journal & Courier recently reported that thus far there have been no signs that the Senate is willing to consider reinstating funding for the Hoosier State.

McHugh said changing the schedule of the Hoosier State was an effort to show the carrier’s willingness to work with INDOT to seek federal grant money for track improvements that could further reduce the running time and eventually increase the service frequency to two daily roundtrips between Indianapolis and Chicago.

“But the rabbit is no longer up our sleeve,” McHugh said. “The train had been performing poorly. I think we fixed that, and we can demonstrate it.”

McHugh said the Chicago-Indianapolis corridor needs rail passenger and that Amtrak is “very saddened by the turn of events. We very much want to do whatever we can to convince people that we will make this service better.”

McHugh acknowledged that lackluster on- time performance was the biggest complaint Amtrak received about the Hoosier State.

Yet he claimed that it has improved from 54.1 percent and 66.7 percent in FY2014 and 2015 to 80.5 percent through February 2019.

Tod Bassler of the Indiana Passenger Rail Alliance said that if the Hoosier State ends it will be tough to bring it back.

Although he said he doesn’t have details Bassler said he would not be surprised to see the Hoosier State still around even if the legislature ends the funding as many expect.

“Even though on the surface it doesn’t look very good, there continues to be work in order to come up with some sort of compromise,” Bassler said. “I continue to be surprised by last-minute surprises.”

McHugh, though, is not as optimistic even as he seek to pitch the virtues of continuing the service. Neither was INDOT’s Manning.

“We’re waiting to see what the final budget looks like,” Manning said. “If the funding line item is placed in the next biennium, we’ll work with Amtrak to continue service. If not, we’ll work with them to wind it down.”

Joe Krause is a volunteer who assists passengers at Amtrak’s Lafayette station.

“I never say it’s over until it’s over,” Krause told the Journal & Courier. “But we all know, it’s not looking good. The people who care don’t matter. And the people who matter don’t care. I’m not sure how they’re going to resolve this.”

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