Amtrak Has Competition in Indiana.
Three days a week, passengers traveling by train between Chicago and Indianapolis can take The Cardinal, an Amtrak long-distance train that runs on a southerly route overnight through Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia to Washington, D,.C.; then on up the East Coast to New York City.
For as long as I can remember, on the other four days, Amtrak has also operated the Hoosier State, an all-coach train making only the five-hour run between Chicago and Indianapolis.
But a few years ago, defying the obvious logic that our national passenger rail system should be supported by the national government, Congress decided that any subsidies for Amtrak trains with routes less than 750 miles would have to come from the states through which those trains passed. Among several trains affected was the Hoosier State.
With the ball suddenly in their court, the State of Indiana didn’t just pick up the tab for the Amtrak service. In effect, they put the Hoosier State out to bid. There was an embarrassing false start, but the second time around, the Indiana DOT awarded a contract to Iowa Pacific Holdings and that company is now operating the Hoosier State.
Amtrak is still very much involved, however. The locomotives and rail cars belong to Iowa Pacific and the car attendants and the dining car staff are Iowa Pacific employees. But Amtrak is still providing the operating crew—the engineers and conductors—and the Iowa Pacific equipment is serviced at Amtrak’s Beech Grove Maintenance Facility. You can also buy tickets for the Hoosier Sate directly from the Amtrak web site.
So how have things been going so far? Uh … well, it’s a mixed bag. Some good, some not so good.
The “good” is really good. The on-board service provided by Iowa Pacific includes a business class option that offers free drinks plus meals cooked on board and served on real china in an observation/dining car. (Breakfast shown in photo above.) Compared to Amtrak’s Café Car . . . well, there really is no comparison.
But there have been mechanical problems and more than a few. Iowa Pacific trains have been annulled and passengers expecting to enjoy the creature comforts noted above have found themselves on vastly disappointing five-hour bus rides instead. Furthermore, the relationship between Amtrak and Iowa Pacific has been spotty—ranging from tense to hostile.
There’s a lot riding on this train, so to speak. Can a private company operate regular passenger service, offer better on-board amenities than Amtrak, and still make a buck? And even if it can, will the State of Indiana, with a conservative governor and legislature, continue to subsidize the service? That’s a plateful right there but, trust me, there’s a lot more to come.