Acrimony In The Past: Amtrak, INDOT Cooperate To Improve Hoosier State Train

Mar 2, 2017

The arrival of Amtrak's dome car at the depot in Lafayette, Ind., signals Amtrak has resumed control of all operations of the Hoosier State train.
Credit Marc Magliari, Amtrak

Amtrak ramped up its services Wednesday when it resumed complete control of all facets of the Hoosier State train that runs eight times a week between Indianapolis and Chicago.

The arrival of Amtrak’s high profile dome car, food service, business class and free Wi-Fi signal local, state and federal leaders are focused on maintaining revenue gains achieved after the state hired a private contractor to market and improve the money-losing service.

The amenities weren’t added in 2013 when Congress cut rail funding, and the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) and communities served by the line began paying Amtrak’s operating costs.  

Price was the obstacle back then. So what’s changed?  Plenty, says Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

“Some of the faces have changed in the last several years,” Magliari says. “A different governor, a different transportation commissioner, different people at Amtrak, too, sat down with a fresh sheet of paper and said, ‘What can we do?’”

INDOT spokesman Will Wingfield says relations improved in September when former Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman retired, and former Norfolk Southern executive Wick Moorman was appointed to the position.

“They’ve been an eager partner to work with us,” Wingfield says. “We have good things to say about the new Amtrak CEO and his team.”

Wingfield would not say how much the new services cost.

He does say INDOT is using all of the money appropriated for the Hoosier State.

Also, Amtrak is giving INDOT a price break or credit because the train hauls rail cars to Amtrak’s maintenance shop in Beech Grove, Indiana.

The apparent change of heart comes after four years of often-contentious negotiations and the early exit of the private contractor that had been providing onboard services and rail cars operated by Amtrak engineers and conductors.

The sudden end to the state’s public-private experiment, plus time to reflect on lessons learned over the years, offered fresh perspective, say both spokesmen.   

Amtrak’s Magliari now talks about “growing the business,” a theme consistently advocated by state and local elected leaders who are footing the $3 million annual bill of operating the train.

“The way you build ridership is to have frequencies that are attractive on a schedule that people can support and see is better than driving, and fares people can afford,” Magliari says. “Those are the three elements of the elixir to grow ridership – frequency, fare and schedule.”

But there’s plenty to do before the business can grow.

There’s a new operating contract to negotiate before the current one expires June 30. And, there’s the issue of finding money to pay for a future contract.

Wingfield says his agency is lobbying legislators to fund the Hoosier State in the two-year state budget now under consideration in the General Assembly.  

Some lawmakers have indicated they have misgivings about a new deal because of the collapse of the public-private partnership.