For Hoosier State Line, The Clock Is Running Even If New Trains Aren't

Jul 8, 2015

Passengers board the Hoosier State on July 1 -- the day the train was supposed to change hands operationally.
Credit Stan Jastrzebski / WBAA News

The casual rider of the Hoosier State Line probably didn’t expect any changes on July 1 as an Amtrak-branded engine and set of cars rolled through Lafayette on its way to Chicago.

But instead of the red, blue and gray Amtrak paint job, passengers were supposed to see the brown and orange paint job of Iowa Pacific rolling stock.

“Of course we’re eager to get going, so we were disappointed," says Iowa Pacific President Ed Ellis, who says he thinks his company could start running the trains within a matter of days after a contract is signed. But he insists it’s not Iowa Pacific holding that process up.

“We believe that ours is pretty much fully negotiated," Ellis says. "We haven’t signed it yet, because we don’t want to sign it until INDOT signs with Amtrak. But we believe that once theirs is signed, the steps involved in signing ours are really short.”

Iowa Pacific did need to make improvements to its equipment before the train could be certified, but it had done the lion’s share of that two weeks before it ran a test train the last weekend of June. So who is responsible for the delay? Amtrak?

“We’re not holding this up," says Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari, who adds there are “issues” left to resolve, but he repeatedly refused to elaborate.

“We’re not going to negotiate this on public radio,” he says.

State Representative Randy Truitt (R-West Lafayette), who lobbied successfully for more state funding for the train, says a rocky relationship between Amtrak and Iowa Pacific isn’t helping the timetable.

“You’ve got Amtrak involved, that’s not really part of the operating side of the equation. You’ve got Iowa Pacific that is involved. I think there’s a little bit of bad blood potentially in there from that standpoint, even though they didn’t participate in the bidding process when it first started,” Truitt says.

West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis agrees. He went to Washington, D.C. to talk with Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman and says Boardman was tempered in his enthusiasm for the new agreement.

“Everybody is enthusiastic about continuing this service – that’s what’s so ironic," Dennis says. "Everybody wants this to happen. But Joe also brought up the fact that he said ‘Hey guys, remember – we’re basically asked to subsidize our competitors on our rails.’”

One item on which everyone agrees is that the new state budget, which allocates up to $6 million for the line, covers only two years– and those two years are the time Iowa Pacific has to prove itself.

“We are on the clock and we want to hit the ground with our feet running because we definitely feel the time pressure of the two-year deal," says CEO Ed Ellis. "And really, truthfully, we don’t want to wait two years. We want to prove the viability here in the first year of this contract. So it’s important for us to get going just as soon as INDOT and Amtrak are able to conclude an agreement.”

But there the conversation lurches back to what’s slowing it down. INDOT spokesman Will Wingfield says it’s minor details.

“What remains are very somewhat wonky things like certifying the potable water source that will be used on the train,” Wingfield says.

The latest operating agreement lasts about a month – there’s no firm start date. Wingfield remains confident the train can run sooner rather than later.

The work now is all about contract language. Some issues left to resolve are regulatory. Some are about bargaining chips Amtrak won’t divulge. When and if the new trains do start running, Iowa Pacific will work on the line’s timetables to see if it can improve on-time performance. Much like the service Amtrak has operated for many years, the ongoing negotiations are fraught with delays.

But while a train can be late from time to time, state lawmakers are forbidden from delaying their budget-writing session every other year.  And now that the clock is counting down until the 2017 budget session of the legislature, the question for all sides in the Hoosier State discussion becomes: Are the trains better late than never?