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With a new administration in D.C., it's time to think outside of the box because passenger rail's survival just may depend on it

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Hoosier State Debate: Who's Right?

Recently, I stumbled unto a debate over the future of the Hoosier State in regards to the PRIIA Section 209 provision that forces states to pick up the tab for routes that are less than 750 miles long. The Lafayette Journal-Courier column is calling for a more proactive role while the NARP Blog response says that playing defense is a better ploy.

Journal-Courier
If Lafayette has to sit through one more wistful trip down memory lane about passenger rail, dripping with images of porters, whistle-stops and relatives waving farewell at the station with their handkerchiefs, we’re all going to lose it.
Mr. Bangert's "memory lane" reference makes passenger sound like an outdated mode of travel when it has, in fact, made a bit of a comeback.

Don’t pound the lectern demanding some dusty right to passenger rail. Get in there and pound the table for better service. His upshot: Simply subsidize the Hoosier State in its current condition, and it will fail; improve the Hoosier State, and people will ride.
State Senator Hershman is right on with his remarks that just retaining the Hoosier State in its current condition is a recipe for failure. After all, Train #850 has an unmarketable time for Purdue University students.

Troy Woodruff, INDOT chief of state...blistered the federal mandate passed in 2008, calling Amtrak’s business model a loser and repeatedly indicated his unwillingness to touch an annual payment of $80 for every one of the 36,669 passengers who rode the Hoosier State during the most recent fiscal year.
IN DOT should have done its homework on the PRIIA provision because if it had, then, it would have consulted another operator to see how much cheaper that company could operate the Hoosier State.

But he did allow that INDOT would be willing to pay a slice, if local governments and others were willing to chip in, too. While INDOT and Amtrak stared each other down to see which would blink first, a handful of mayors of cities along the Hoosier State route wanted to know two things:
• If you’re asking us to contribute, how much?
• And if we contribute, what’s being done to make service better? In other words: What are we getting for our money?
Although I'm neutral on the idea of municipalities funding corridor routes, this could be a future funding mechanism.
He also said increasing the number of trains on the Hoosier State line is open for discussion, too.
When it comes to Magliari's statement on possibly adding frequencies on the route, this is such a no-brainer given this schedule from 1994.

Available Wi-Fi on the trains. Some sort of food service, even if that meant a grab-and-go setup. Partnering with a shuttle service in Chicago for seamless transfers to airports. (“Anecdotally, what we’re seeing are a lot of Purdue students using the train out of Lafayette, many presumably to fly out of Chicago,” Hershman said. “Wouldn’t you pay for an easier way to O’Hare from Union Station?”)
In addition to Hershman's suggestions, All Aboard Ohio was unto something with its recommendations in adding more Hoosier State trains and extending them to Cincinnati. The only quibble is that I would change two of the trains to a single Louisville roundtrip with the possibility of a further extension to Nashville. This move would help establish a Chicago-Louisville service early on as the MWHSR project progresses.

NARP Blog
 [I]t’s the simple fact that if the Hoosier State disappears, it becomes ten times more difficult to get better service on this important part of the Chicago Hub passenger train network.
The mantra of "once it's gone, it's difficult to get it back" has been demonstrated in the Gulf Coast with the eastern link of the Sunset Limited and in the inland West with the Pioneer and North Coast Hiawatha.

However, as train advocates have learned the hard way time and again, once you lose a passenger train service, there are many expensive hurdles to clear before it can be restored. As imperfect as it is, the existing Hoosier State serves as a necessary baseline off of which to build a quicker, more convenient and attractive train service.

This is squarely on Amtrak management for its botched handling of converting the Cardinal into a daily train.

That will continue to be the case even if the Hoosier State remains as-is, and even if it disappears, students will still use the tri-weekly Cardinal to get to and from Chicago. 

In the short term, it'd be in Amtrak's best interest to either make the Cardinal daily northwest of Indianapolis or move the Hoosier State to more favorable times for students.

All the improvements that the train’s riders and supporters seek will only come to pass if INDOT is willing to work with Amtrak as a partner, like the state DOT’s in neighboring Michigan and Illinois have done with great success.  Such a partnership can only be formed with maintaining the Hoosier State as its centerpiece. Once a partnership is established, INDOT will have the ability to do things like add food service and install WiFi on the trains.
Given the provisions in Section 209, the INDOT could still accomplish the things Kenton mentioned if it seeks a different operator.

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