Hoosier State Line Turns A Profit After One Year, But Its Future Is Still Uncertain

Aug 25, 2016

Results are mixed one year into a two-year partnership involving the state, Amtrak, a private contractor and communities served by the Hoosier State passenger train.

The state’s goal has been to improve the route, attract more riders and generate more revenue to make the four-times-a-week round-trip service between Indianapolis and Chicago more self-sufficient.

WBAA’s Chris Morisse Vizza assess the progress thus far, and whether it’s enough to win continued funding from Indiana legislators.

It’s 7:45 on Friday morning at the Lafayette train station and Amtrak conductor Mark Slaughter is helping 36 passengers board the Chicago-bound train.

The train departs about 15 minutes later than scheduled, not enough of a delay to distract riders intent on their destinations.

Sara Johnston, of Warren County, says she’s eager to spend the train ride relaxing and visiting with four classmates from Pine Village High School.

“One of the other gals got us back together several years ago and we go somewhere every year,” Johnston says. “So this year is our fiftieth and we’re going to Chicago.”

As the Lafayette passengers settle into their seats, train staff announce the answer to the most-asked question – the password to the free WIFI.

The fast internet service is a pleasant surprise, says Purdue doctoral student Tasha Zephirin – fast enough to make up for the similarly surprising lack of an electrical outlet at her seat. 

“My first reaction coming in was there’s no outlet around,” Zephirin says. “So I know from the other one (train) there’s definitely outlets. But this one has more reliable WIFI, so a reasonable trade-off.”

What most riders, even occasional customers like Zephirin, often don’t realize, is this train is NOT Amtrak, whose long-distance Cardinal covers the route three days a week.

This is the Hoosier State, run by a public-private partnership that’s been in place since August second of last year.

The Indiana Department of Transportation hired private contractor Iowa Pacific Holdings to provide engines and its signature harvest brown, orange and gold passenger cars, as well as on-board services such as food, beverages and the WIFI.

Amtrak engineers and conductors are contracted to operate the train, and the state and five communities along the route foot the roughly $2.7 million annual cost.

Payments from the cities of Lafayette and West Lafayette, and Tippecanoe County will total $294,000 during the current fiscal year.

During a June community celebration of the partnership, Iowa Pacific Holdings CEO Ed Ellis touted an average on-time performance of 86 percent – well better than Amtrak’s average which ranged between 60 and 65 percent.

It’s the result, Ellis says, of establishing personal relationships with Amtrak and every freight rail company along the line.

“I think, if nothing else, just that level of daily attention has caused everybody else to pay daily attention to the train and has solved the problem,” Ellis says.

Though ridership has seen an 11 percent decline in the 12 months since Iowa Pacific joined the mix, ticket revenue is up 26 percent overall.

July saw gains in both metrics, and numbers from June of this year show the line has erased a nearly $2 million dollar yearly loss and is now turning a small profit.

Ellis attributes the financial growth to the Hoosier State’s business class, for which riders pay a premium to receive food and beverage service and a ride in the train’s dome car, with its large windows.

Coach passengers get access to a la carte food. But when Kim Garrett of Lafayette wanted food, he couldn’t get it because business passengers were occupying all of the seats in the dining car.

“They need to do the food thing a little better,” Garrett says. “I’m starving right now and I can’t eat because it’s only like four tables and I can’t eat because you can’t bring it up here.”

Another trouble spot identified by Benton County passenger Diana Marion is the confusion of buying a ticket for the Hoosier Train on the Amtrak website.

“We did go to the Amtrak website,” Marion says. “But finding ticket prices and finding times they left, and return times once you found the city you go to, was very difficult on the website. And we’re pretty web-savvy, so they need some work there.”

And while Amtrak handles ticket sales for the Hoosier State, Iowa Pacific’s on-board steward Matthew Dockham says his train’s amenities aren’t advertised as prominently as the Cardinal’s on Amtrak’s site.

“You won’t see a picture of our dome car or our place settings or anything like that on the Amtrak website,” Dockham says.

With legislators slated to develop a new two-year state budget next year, the question is: has the new operating model improved enough to convince skeptical lawmakers to continue funding the line?

Republican Representative Tim Brown (R-Crawfordsville), who is chairman of the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee -- and an initial rail skeptic -- says he decided to answer the question for himself, and rode the train August 9.

“This experience showed me there is a desire, there is interest in continuing it and growing it, and so I’m more convinced now than two years ago that it’s more appropriate to continue funding,” Brown says.

He says it’s too early to say how much will be allotted for the Hoosier State, but he expects legislators will approve a line item for passenger rail in the Indiana Department of Transportation budget.

Brown, Ellis and Greater Lafayette business leaders say financial stability for the passenger line hinges on adding more daily trains to the route, thereby increasing ridership.

But before any trains can be added, Ellis says sidings and automated signals must be added to the track, infrastructure upgrades controlled by track owner CSX and the Indiana Department of Transportation.

“I think it’s obvious we need more trains, and the only way to do that is for the state to go to the freight railroads and say, ‘What does it take,’ and for the railroads to give us all a number and for us to decide if we can afford to do that,” Ellis says.