Amtrak’s Hoosier State line has long been a popular way for college students at places like Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana to travel to Chicago for concerts, sporting events and to shop, especially on weekends.
“The Friday train can be pretty packed,” Marc Magliari, Amtrak’s Chicago-based spokesman, told WBEZ on Tuesday.
But that service between Chicago and Indianapolis could be disrupted if Indiana lawmakers don’t act soon to provide funding. The Hoosier State line runs four days a week between the two cities, carrying on average about 120 passengers per trip on trains that can accommodate up to 270 people, depending on demand. In 2012, some 37,000 riders boarded the Hoosier State line, according to Amtrak.
By October, the Hoosier State line could make its last run if $3 million in funding doesn’t come through from Indiana lawmakers. That’s because in 2008, Congress decided to eliminate funding for Amtrak routes that are less than 750-miles. Chicago to Indianapolis is less than 200.
Tim Maloney hopes that does not happen.
“We’re very interested in seeing more (Indiana) investment and involvement with transportation alternatives to motor vehicles on highways because of the environmental and energy-savings benefits that those alternatives provide,” said Maloney, senior policy director the Indianapolis-based Hoosier Environmental Council.
Maloney’s been keeping a watchful eye during this last week for legislative action in the Indiana House and Senate. Hoosier lawmakers are busying putting the final touches on a new two-year budget. Maloney said the Senate’s version of the budget includes funding to keep the Hoosier State line going.
Maloney believes there is a demand for alternatives to driving between Chicago and Indy, even though Amtrak can take up to five hours compared to approximately three hours in a car from downtown Chicago.
“We believe there will be a growing demand for those alternative based on high gas prices and demographic changes. So, we think it’s a good idea for the state to diversify its transportation investment, including passenger rail and urban public transit,” Maloney said.
Indiana isn’t the only state who has to decide whether to keep an Amtrak train route to Chicago up and running. A route from Chicago to St. Louis and Detroit to Chicago are also at risk of losing funding.
If the Hoosier State route is eliminated, passengers can still utilize the Cardinal line that runs three days a week from Chicago to Indy. Because the Cardinal line connects to the East Coast, funding continues. Maloney says Amtrak has seen an 80 percent growth in the last five years and thinks it could get more.
“It’s close to 40,000 passengers a year and that’s based on having just one train a day going each day,” Maloney said.
Maloney said work is being done to improve travel times, primarily because Amtrak often has to stop for freight trains in its path during its four-stop trip which includes one stop outside Chicago in Dyer, Indiana.
“But there’s no question travel times need to improve. That’s a key for attracting more riders,” Maloney said.
But besides travel convenience, Maloney says there’s also an issue of jobs. Amtrak operates a maintenance center in Beech Grove, a suburb of Indianapolis that provides about 550 jobs.
“Amtrak spends over $21 million dollars a year buying goods and services from Indiana companies,” Maloney said. “There are 99 companies in Indiana that benefit and can benefit from passenger rail service, that’s second only to Ohio.”
Meanwhile, the Indiana Department of Transportation has hired an engineering consultant to evaluate what types of schedule changes might make Amtrak service in Indiana self-supporting. If Hoosier lawmakers don’t make a decision this week on whether to fund the route, it could write the money into the budget and decide at a later time whether to use it on the route.
But Maloney questions some media reports suggesting Indiana can wait until October to decide.
"If the legislature doesn't allocate the funding this week, it may not have the money to fund it later. This is a very important time," Maloney said.
On Wednesday morning, the Hoosier State pulled into the depot in Dyer, Indiana with no one boarding or getting off. When asked if she thinks Indiana will continue funding for the route, a female Amtrak conductor speaking from a window said, "I think they will."
Michael Puente is a reporter at WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter at @MikePuenteNews