Numbers: 850, 851
Intermediate Stations: Dyer, Rensselaer, Lafayette, Crawfordsville, Indianapolis and Jeffersonville, Indiana.
Host Railroads: CSX (former Monon) between Munster, Indiana, and Indianapolis; Louisville & Indiana (former Pennsylvania) between Indianapolis and Jeffersonville, Indiana. The Kentucky Cardinal used short segments owned by Metra and Norfolk Southern (former Wabash), Union Pacific (former Chicago & Eastern Illinois) and Canadian National (former Grand Trunk Western) between Chicago and Munster. Within Louisville, the train used CSX to reach Union Station.
Amtrak Operated: December 17, 1999 to July 5, 2003
Named for: Three days a week Nos. 850 and 851 were a section of the Chicago-Washington Cardinal and the train served Kentucky. The Illinois Central Railroad operated a train named the Kentucky Cardinal between Louisville and Fulton, Kentucky, until April 1954.
Pre-Amtrak History: None.
Amtrak History: During the late 1990s federal support of Amtrak came under intense fire from conservatives in Congress. They put into law a directive that Amtrak was to wean itself from federal funding by 2002. Amtrak asserted that it was on a glide path to self-sufficiency, meaning that it would earn enough revenue to cover its costs.
One approach to achieve this goal was the Network Growth Strategy, which called for a vast expansion of trains and routes. The plan assumed that revenues from hauling time-sensitive freight would pay for the additional service as well as defray losses of existing trains. The Kentucky Cardinal was one of the few components of the plan that was ever implemented.
On December 17, 1999, the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State was extended to Jeffersonville, Indiana, and renamed the Kentucky Cardinal. Three days a week the Kentucky Cardinal combined with the Cardinal between Chicago and Indianapolis (Southbound on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday; northbound on Monday, Thursday and Saturday). On the other four days, the Kentucky Cardinal operated independently between Chicago and Jeffersonville.
The Kentucky Cardinal began terminating at Louisville Union Station on December 4, 2001, after completion of a $630,000 project to restore track to the 110-year-old depot. Now owned by the Transit Authority of River City, the station had not hosted scheduled passenger trains since the Floridian moved to the suburban Auto-Train terminal on November 1, 1976.
Louisville had been without intercity passenger service since the last trip of the Floridian passed through town on October 8, 1979. Concurrent with the resumption of train service to Louisville Union Station, Greyhound began a Thruway bus between Louisville and Nashville with stops at Elizabethtown and Bowling Green, Kentucky.
The Kentucky Cardinal never had a food service car. Passengers could patronize the Cardinal‘s diner and lounge on the days that it combined with that train. On the days the Kentucky Cardinal operated independently, food and drink were available from on-board vending machines.
Because the Kentucky Cardinal operated overnight it had a sleeping car. First class passengers were given complimentary box meals.
The Kentucky Cardinal had several things going against it from the beginning. The running time over its meandering 312-mile route was 12 hours. Some of that was due to long dwell times in Indianapolis, more than two hours northbound. The southbound Kentucky Cardinal was just over an hour faster because its Indy dwell time was shorter (40 minutes).
The schedule was slow because the top speed on the 190-mile route between Indianapolis and Louisville was 30 miles per hour. The train was allotted five hours to cover that distance. A short line railroad, the Louisville & Indiana, owned the track and the cost of rebuilding the line to 60-mph operation was put at more than $20 million, with some estimates double that. Much of the track was jointed rail that was more than 50 years old.
Initially, Amtrak carried a boxcar or two of mail, but expressed optimism that it could land additional business hauling canned and perishable goods. There was talk that the Kentucky Cardinal might pick up express business from United Parcel Service, which operated an air express hub at Louisville International Airport.
L&I and Amtrak signed a five-year agreement to share revenues and develop an express hub in Jeffersonville where L&I had a yard. Indeed, the Jeffersonville station was located within the L&I yard. The hub opened on August 2, 2001. It had 10 truck docks and space to load six Amtrak express cars simultaneously.
A few months after it began, Amtrak said the Kentucky Cardinal had exceeded expectations, although it wouldn’t say what those expectations were. The company said the Kentucky Cardinal cost less than $1 million a year to operate and was close to breaking even.
Patronage in January 2000, the first full month of service, was 1,651, an average of 53 per day. Four months later, ridership had increased to an average of 88 passengers a day. During fiscal year 2000, the Kentucky Cardinal carried 25,906. A year later ridership had risen to 29,201. Yet most of that increase had occurred on the segment between Chicago and Indianapolis. Few rode the Kentucky Cardinal between its endpoints.
Although extending the Kentucky Cardinal to Nashville was not part of the original blueprint for the train, Amtrak studied that prospect, operating a test train over the former Louisville & Nashville mainline between its namesake cities on December 20, 2001.
Amtrak told CSX that it wanted to extend the Kentucky Cardinal to Nashville, which had been without intercity rail passenger service since the demise of the Floridian in October 1979. But the 180-mile Nashville extension never came about.
The Kentucky Cardinal began with a Superliner coach and sleeper, and one or two express cars. The sleeper was removed on August 12, 2001, for reassignment to the California Zephyr, but returned on October 29.
The Superliner equipment was removed for reassignment elsewhere on May 5, 2002, after a derailment of Amtrak’s Auto Train triggered an equipment shortage. The Kentucky Cardinal received a Viewliner sleeper and Amfleet II coach.
That sleeper was removed on June 16, 2002, for reassignment to the Boston-Newport News, Virginia, Twilight Shoreliner. In its final months of operation, the Kentucky Cardinal operated with a Horizon coach south of Indianapolis.
Despite its short consist, the Kentucky Cardinal had two locomotives with noses facing in opposite directions. This was done due to the lack of turning facilities in Jeffersonville. Push-pull operation was not possible due to the express cars lacking the communication lines needed for that.
The express business that Amtrak had expected to generate never came to fruition. The Kentucky Cardinal lost $6.2 million in FY 2001. By late 2002, the mail that the Kentucky Cardinal had carried had been diverted to trucks. With Amtrak giving up on the express business, poor operating conditions and low ridership, the Kentucky Cardinal no longer had a valid reason for existing in the eyes of Amtrak management. Patronage had fallen to 20,707 in 2002.
Amtrak said on January 6, 2003, that it would end the Kentucky Cardinal in 180 days unless the states served by the train provided $800,000 among them to help make up the losses. None of the three states served by the route indicated even a remote interest in doing that. Kentucky Governor Paul Patton cited a tight state budget. Indiana had never funded Amtrak service.
The Kentucky Cardinal made its final trip from Chicago to Louisville on July 5, 2003, returning to Chicago the next day. Amtrak kept the train between Chicago and Indianapolis, reprising the Hoosier State name.
Three Louisville men made a futile effort to forestall the discontinuance, filing a lawsuit that charged that Amtrak had failed to adequately market the train and drove away business by assigning it substandard equipment. The National Association of Railroad Passengers expressed regret at the elimination of the Kentucky Cardinal, but noted that it had become a political liability due to its slow schedule, high financial losses and low ridership.
This had resulted in national ridicule being heaped on the Kentucky Cardinal, stemming in part from a congressional report that said Amtrak lost nearly $200 for every passenger that the train carried between Chicago and Louisville.
In a statement, NARP noted that Louisville is part of a proposed network of high-speed rail corridors designated by the federal Department of Transportation. It expressed hope that development of that network would result in a much better service than that provided by the Kentucky Cardinal.