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Route connecting two major Midwest cities nearly closed due to state-federal dispute

by Laura Kliewer ~ May 2015 ~ Stateline Midwest »
Every week, hundreds of rail passengers travel on the Hoosier State, a train that runs four days a week between Indianapolis and Chicago. For a time this spring, though, it appeared those travelers would be left without a train to ride.
Before the state of Indiana and Federal Rail Administration reached an understanding in early April, a dispute between them threatened to end service on the Hoosier State. And even now, questions about the long-term future of the rail line remain. Seven years ago, with passage of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, the U.S. Congress ended funding for Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles, including the Hoosier State line.
In 2013, Indiana became responsible for any operating and capital costs not generated by ticket revenue. (Other states in the region had already been paying for similar shorter-distance “corridor” service.) Indiana initially contracted with Amtrak for the service, with communities along the line providing more than half of the funding and the Indiana Department of Transportation providing the rest.
In 2014, the state and its local communities agreed to find a better model for operating the line. Later that same year, the state chose Iowa Pacific Holdings to provide the rail cars, food and beverage service, and marketing services. Amtrak would continue to provide the engineers, conductors, tickets and access to freight-owned tracks.
But the FRA initially told Indiana that in order to make such changes, the state would have to be considered a “railroad carrier” and take ultimate responsibility for any safety issues. That new requirement, state officials said, was unacceptable.
“INDOT cannot agree to become a railroad or a railroad carrier as that would require a significantly higher commitment of resources, the assumption of additional liability, and uncertainty over employment practices,” department Commissioner Karl Browning wrote in a March 6 letter to U.S. Transportation
Secretary Anthony Foxx. Without a change in the FRA’s position, he added, the Hoosier State would cease operations. INDOT announced in early April, however, that it was able to reach an understanding with the FRA. The new deal, INDOT says, establishes “clear lines of accountability for passenger rail safety and accessibility."
Improving the service and ensuring continued financial support for it is another work in progress. This year, the legislature’s biennial budget bill included $3 million in annual funding for the Hoosier State.
In April, the president of Iowa Pacific said that the company plans to institute a variety of marketing packages to increase ridership, and would eventually like to see 12 round-trip trains a day on the route. In all, 18 states, including Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin in the Midwest, currently pay the cost of intercity passenger rail service on shorter service routes such as the Hoosier State.
The Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission has been encouraging states and the FRA to resolve safety issues with these routes without requiring states to be designated as “railroad carriers.”

 

Article written by Laura Kliewer, director of the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.