Indiana’s Train to Nowhere

The past several years have not been kind to Indiana.

National indicators show the state at or near the bottom of numerous categories: education, personal income, transportation, entrepreneurship…In their zeal for low taxes, our elected officials have proudly handed us a state where we get what we pay for–which is to say, not much.

Now, this “good enough for Hoosiers” mindset is threatening the Hoosier State, one of the last trains serving Indiana.

The Hoosier State is certainly not state of the art, but it does run every day from Indianapolis to Chicago. That’s a far cry from the 10 trains a day in each direction that ran on that corridor until the late 1950s, it’s an even farther cry from the multiple 110 mph trains being built in Illinois and Michigan, but it is at least something.

The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states with passenger rail service of less than 750 miles to take financial responsibility for those routes by October 1, 2013, or lose them. Fifteen states were thus required to invest in their short haul routes; Indiana is the only state that has not agreed to do so. Once again, we are the only holdout.

Keeping the Hoosier State will cost just under 3 million dollars a year. (To put this in context, Indiana subsidizes a non-stop flight to San Francisco with a 1.5 million revenue guarantee.)

So what do we get for that money? What will we lose if we lose the Hoosier State?

  • Amtrak boards over 35,000 passengers a year at Union Station. (That number would increase dramatically if the quality of the service increased, but that isn’t “on the table.”)
  • Sixty percent of our convention visitors come from Chicago, and passengers can walk to most downtown hotels from Union Station. That gives us a strategic advantage over places like Louisville, Cincinnati, Columbus, etc. when we are pitching convention business (or Super Bowls).
  • The 539 jobs at the Amtrak Beech Grove facility are important to our local economy; losing the Hoosier State probably means losing those jobs.

The transportation committee of the Indiana Legislature will have a hearing at 10:00  tomorrow, and there will also be a rally at 4:00 outside the Statehouse. But time is running short, and few lawmakers have shown a recognition of what is truly at stake.

Economics are one thing. Quality of life is another. But trumping both is the less tangible issue of self-image.

How long do we want to keep being the backward state–the “middle finger of the South”? How long will “good enough” be good enough?


  1. You’re really making those numbers dance. For starters, the Hoosier State is Amtrak’s least-ridden route. To loose it would not jeopardize Beech Grove, as we are talking a train that averages 4,000 riders/month. That’s 133 riders daily, or two coach cars. If two coaches and one locomotive is Beech Grove’s make-or-break point, it’s already done. Alas, it isn’t.

    (It doesn’t ‘board’ 35,000+ passengers at Union Station. It boards about half that many. The number you cited indicates riders. Roughly half board at Chicago Union Station.)

    The subsidy breaks down to about $80/passenger. This problem is very easily solved. Raise the fares by $80. Currently, one-way is $24. That’s absurdly cheap, and still people don’t ride. Ok, I ride it, because I enjoy it, but 133 people a day? What is the price elasticity of a ride on Amtrak? If the fare was raised to a break-even cost, I would still ride. How would it affect fares? down to 120/day? 100/day? There are always rosy projections about how ridership would blossom if only we spent billions upgrading the track at $50/mile. How about a study on price elasticity relative to raising the fare?

    Quality of life? That’s such a stretch. 133 riders a day, and you’re making a quality of life statement? With all due respect, get real.

    Also- who ran 10 trains daily from Indy to Chicago in the 1950s? Citation please. The Monon ran two- The Hoosier, and The Tippecanoe, discontinuing all passenger service in April 1959. Those trains had the similar consists as the current Hoosier State- a locomotive and two coach cars, plus an RPO car. (per James Lewnard’s book, “Monon, In Color”)

    I would like to see Indiana end all of the subsidies to transportation, including that SF flight, being that there is more than one way to level the playing field, and the users of the service should be the ones to pay for it, imo.

  2. Mike,

    According to Wikipedia, “Prior to Amtrak (ed., in 1979), the Chicago-Indianapolis market was served by several daily trains, with the Pennsylvania Railroad’s South Wind and Kentuckian, and the New York Central’s James Whitcomb Riley, Indianapolis Special, and Sycamore.”

    That’s five more. I would have to dig to see which line the Penn Central chose of the two that the Hoosier State ended up on.

    Frankly, back when rail routes were established, Indianapolis to Chicago was hardly a sought after route. More like a by-product of competition or a waypoint to the South. St. Louis was the place everyone wanted to serve from the East.

  3. Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

    It is amazing that the Hoosier State train to Chicago has so many riders given the early departure time from Indy.

    What if we had one flight a day to Chicago’s O’Hare at 6am?
    Could we conclude there was no demand for air service to Chicago based on that?

    Once Indiana is a customer of Amtrak , it can improve the duration and departure times.

    Wisconsin has 5 trains a day from Milwaukee to Chicago that take 97 minutes. Wisconsin subsidizes each and every train.

    Further, the state of Indiana just gave a $1.5 million revenue guarantee to United Airlines so employees didn’t have to change planes when flying from SFO to IND.

    We can work on lowering the Amtrak subsidy figure next year.

  4. How long will “good enough” be good enough? Forever. I have lived here since 1957 and nothing has changed; oh, I forgot, several subsidized sports palaces were built for taxpayer-subsidized teams.

  5. Mike seems to be among those who want to terminate all public transportation. Ideology or plans for personal profit? There is no public transit anywhere that makes a profit from the fare box.

  6. I’d much rather take a train to Chicago and arrive downtown sooner and at less cost than it would take to fly there. But 5 hour for a train trip is ridiculous and self-defeating. We keep spending money on interstates where the gridlock never ends. Why can’t Indiana have bullet trains that deliver us to downtown Chicago, Cinncinnati, Louisville, South Bend, Ft. Wayne, or Evansville in an hour or so?

    The rest of the world has trains that move with lightning speed across smooth, well-maintained tracks like magic carpets. These trains provide excellent on-board service (at least equivalent to airlines), and are clean and more comfortable than planes. For all the money we spent on a new airport, the old airport served me very comfortably and well, and I would much rather that money had been spent on state-of- the-art train travel. Transportation would be accessible to many more folks if provided at lower cost by train (as compared to planes) and would provide business travelers more convenient delivery to downtown Chicago than planes and taxis.

    When Washington, D.C. finally built a subway system – decades after other major urban centers in America – it was so speedy, clean, comfortable and inexpensive that people actually thought up places to go that would use the new subway system so that they could ride it.

    Making clean, convenient, affordable transportation more accessible to more folks is a better way to develop our economy than doing the same old expensive things over and over again which also price many folks out of their use. Like you Sheila, I’m tired of Indiana’s trying to be competitive with Mississippi. It takes more than a Super Bowl village to bring us out of our
    8%+ jobless rate, and it’s time we got started on building infrastructure that connects more folks to more jobs and communities.

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