The Hoosier State Experiment.
The Hoosier State is an all-coach train that runs four days a week between Chicago and Indianapolis. On the other three days, those cities are served by The Cardinal, which continues beyond Indianapolis to Charlottesville, Washington and New York City.
About a year and a half ago, with both the blessings and some subsidy from the State of Indiana, the Hoosier State was turned over to a private company, Iowa Pacific Holdings. Amtrak supplied the engineers and conductors, while Iowa Pacific provided the equipment—locomotives, coaches and a combination dome/dining/lounge car— and the staff to serve the passengers.
It was a popular service, and no wonder. Business class passengers rode in the dome and got complimentary food; regular coach passengers had comfortable seats and access to the dining car, which was, in fact the lower level of the dome car. Their food was for purchase but, from what I’ve been told, was quite good and actually cooked on board.
But it didn’t work. Amtrak took over the Hoosier State as of the first of this month, with ordinary Amtrak coaches and a cafe car selling the usual Amtrak “snack bar” offerings. I haven’t seen any public announcements, but I’d be inclined to bet the farm that it was because Iowa Pacific lost money. Probably a lot of money.
But why? All the reports I’ve seen said the service was very good. I would guess one reason is the schedule. The Hoosier State leaves Chicago at 5:45 p.m. and finally gets to Indianapolis just before midnight. That’s almost five hours to cover just under 200 miles. Map quest says you can drive it in less than three hours.
And if you’re going to take the Hoosier State in the other direction, from Indianapolis to Chicago, better set your alarm because that train leaves at 6:00 a.m.
There must be other reasons why this didn’t work out for Iowa Pacific. But their experience does serve to underscore how difficult it is for private enterprise to operate passenger trains at a profit. It takes a huge investment and the risks are formidable even for routes where there is a demonstrable demand for rail service. It is a classic example of how government can and should step in and make up the difference with—OK, now, are you ready for it?—with a subsidy.