Amtrak’s Hoosier State train, Nos. 850 and 851, died on Sunday, June 30 at Indianapolis, after a long illness. She was 38. The immediate cause of death was removal from life support by Indiana state officials. During her lifetime, she ran between Chicago and Indianapolis, but her later life was difficult and plagued by ever-increasing weakness, except during one brief period in 2015-17. She is survived by Amtrak’s Cardinal, which traverses the same route on its journey between Chicago and New York, but only three days per week.
Among the mourners were 153 customers (one less than the train’s entire seating capacity) and the crew who rode eastward on the last run from Chicago, according to Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari. He also told Railway Age that there were 130 westbound customers on the final day, excluding private car customers. Dave Bangert reported in the Lafayette Journal & Courier that two vintage cars built by Pullman-Standard ran behind the Amtrak consist, one sporting the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Tuscan Red livery. Also among the mourners was Dr. Helen Hudson, a retired high-school teacher who had won awards for sprucing up the grounds of the Crawfordsville station.
The Hoosier State was born on Oct. 1, 1980, at a time when there were no passenger trains between the Indiana capital and the Windy City. She had a difficult childhood, with the one bright period from 1987 until 1995, running as a daily train to and from Chicago, on a schedule separate from the Cardinal. She was discontinued at that time, but came back from the grave in 1998, operating on the days when the Cardinal did not run. From Dec. 17, 1999 until July 4, 2003, she had grown to become the daily Kentucky Cardinal, serving Louisville either as a section of the Cardinal or as a stand-alone train, depending on the day. She was cut back to the four-times-weekly schedule between Chicago and Indianapolis on that date, a schedule she maintained until her death.
The long illness to which the Hoosier State succumbed began in 2008 with the passage of Section 209 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA), which required the states through which they run to absorb the full cost of trains traveling less than 750 miles. The Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) later sought a non-Amtrak operator to run her, but a deal with Chicago-based Corridor Rail Development fell through in 2014.
Amtrak continued to operate her on a short-term basis, and she survived on one reprieve after another, often under threat of impending sudden death.
The Hoosier State rallied in 2015, when Iowa Pacific Holdings contracted to operate her, under the leadership of Ed Ellis. During the period of almost 18 months when Iowa Pacific supplied her equipment and on-board services, she was the most luxurious train in the Amtrak system. She ran with 1950s-vintage coaches and a dome car that originally ran on the Santa Fe, and she sported the historic orange and brown livery of the Illinois Central Railroad. 1960s-vintage GP40FH-2 locomotives that had originally operated on the Central Railroad of New Jersey, and acquired from New Jersey Transit, provided motive power. Business class passengers sat and ate on the upper level of the dome car, and breakfast or dinner was included in the price of their tickets. Coach passengers ate at tables on the lower level of the dome car.
During that period, the Hoosier State served the last freshly prepared meals on any Amtrak train on a regularly scheduled basis. This writer’s only experience riding the train during that period included a dinner of chicken piccata prepared by the train’s chef, lemon pudding cake from a local supplier, and coffee served in a china cup. Nothing approaching that sort of meal had been available on Amtrak since 2005.
Amtrak re-assumed the Hoosier State’s operation on March 1, 2017, but Indiana officials balked at paying for it. Last February, Gov. Eric Holcomb proposed a budget that eliminated funding for the train, and the legislature passed it. The funding ended on June 30, so the train made her last trip from Indianapolis to Chicago and back that day.
The Hoosier State consist was denied the honor of lying in state in its ancestral home, Indianapolis Union Station, which has become a conference center owned by the Crown Plaza hotel chain and used for special events. The station building is not normally open to the public, but many of the architectural features from its debut in 1888 survive. The “Union Station” concept began in the Indiana capital in 1853, and a series of historic sign displays in the station building tells its story. The display is collectively entitled: “Take a Walk Through History. It will stop you in your tracks!”
For this writer, it did, but that was because of the severe downfall of rail passenger service in the city. There were more than 200 trains in each direction that stopped at the station in 1920, a number reduced to 59 by 1936. That number went down to three by 1971, of which only one survived until 1979. Then there were none, until the late Hoosier State was born. The station was restored as a hotel in 1986, but without trains. Concierge Richard Yarborough gave this writer a tour of the facility, and said that more than 500,000 people per month passed through the station in its heyday. He added that “Indianapolis could have been a major city for transportation” if events had happened differently.
Anyone who rides passenger trains is sad to see one removed from the rails. The loss means that a travel opportunity, or even some mobility or convenience, is no longer available. Still, questions persist about whether and for how long the ill-fated Hoosier State could have avoided becoming The Little Train That Couldn’t Any Longer, and about the best way to serve a city pair like “Indy” and Chicago.
The Hoosier State was not a mighty long-distance train that ate up one scenic mile after another. Neither was she part of a strong corridor that served the traveling public frequently and conveniently. Even her own boosters did not always realize her full potential. During the Iowa Pacific era, that railroad established a website for the train. It promoted the train, her business class and her destinations, and bore a copyright date of 2019—long after Iowa Pacific abandoned her and Amtrak took her back. While the site also contained some strange promotional copy for a vape shop for smokers, the original copy from there also presented her as a four-day-per-week operation. While that was technically correct, the point of the Hoosier State train was to provide service between Indianapolis and Chicago and intermediate stops on the days the Cardinal does not run, thereby providing daily service for those communities.
That was the reason why the service ran, but her own promoters presented her in a false light by implying that there was no train running on the other three days of the week. Indianapolis and Lafayette (the home of Purdue University) have bus service to and from Chicago. The other three stops, Dyer, Rensselaer and Crawfordsville (home of Wabash College), have no such service. Until the Hoosier State train died, residents of those communities could visit Chicago any day they wished. Now they can only do it on Thursdays or Saturdays, because of the Cardinal’s tri-weekly schedule.
Philip Streby is one of Indiana’s most active advocates. He is Treasurer of the Indiana Passenger Rail Alliance (IPRA) and serves on the Boards of Directors of two national passenger-rail-advocacy organizations, the Rail Users’ Network (RUN) and the Rail Passengers’ Association (RPA). He is also an Amtrak retiree and worked as a conductor on the Hoosier State and the Cardinal. He detailed his campaign to save the train in the April 2019 issue of IPRA’s newsletter, All Aboard Indiana in an article entitled: “Growing the Vitality in the Midwest is reason enough to Save the Hoosier State Train.” He stressed the “business case” for keeping the train, writing: “The Midwest is one of the economic regions in this country, and needs a vital and balanced system of roads, airports, waterways and railroads (including passenger trains) if it is to grow and prosper. Younger generations are moving to where good public transportation exists, and right now, Indiana is not attracting that talent.” He continued with an example: “A huge portion of Purdue University graduates look outside Indiana for job opportunities.”
Streby campaigned hard to save the Hoosier State, but he believes that the state of freight railroading today could doom trains like it. He told Railway Age: “I worked that train when it was part of the Cardinal service. The disastrous 90s should fairly well illustrate what happens when service is reduced. People left Amtrak in droves when 7 and 8 [the Empire Builder] went to four days a week.
Other trains faced a similar fate.” Many of Amtrak’s long-distance trains were cut to three or four days per week as part of the infamous Mercer Management-recommended cuts of the mid-1990s. Some of those trains were restored to daily operation in 1997, while others died completely. Amtrak President and CEO Richard Anderson has threatened recently to impose similar cuts to long-haul trains again, which has made riders and advocates nervous.
Moving forward more than two decades, Streby continued: “Worse now is Precision Scheduled Railroading, which is neither precise nor scheduled. It has been set up by the beancounters who know nothing of railroading, only the bottom line. Trouble is, that bottom line is eroding because the shippers are being short-changed and they know it. The service is going out of the [freight railroad] shipping industry, just like the service went out of the passenger railroad industry.” He also expressed that the key word is “scheduled,” and that neither freight nor passenger trains keep schedules very well any more.
Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari told Railway Age that “We [at Amtrak] were really saddened by the outcome” that the Hoosier State has been discontinued, and he also placed the blame squarely on the Indiana officials who commissioned two engineering firms to make recommendations on how to make the route driving-time competitive. He said, “We’ve been very public in saying the status quo was not sustainable. But the state has chosen, for whatever reason, not to invest in the service.” Magliari also cited PRIIA Section 209 and said that more decisions about train service will be made in the state capitals in the future. In the past, the Hoosier State was used to bring equipment needing repair to Amtrak’s shops at Beech Grove, and to take repaired equipment from there to Chicago to be placed back into service. He added it was hard to understand why the state “made a decision to make it harder to keep and attract work for more than 500 high-value employees.” Magliari said that the Cardinal will continue to perform that function, but the time required for it could affect that train’s on-time performance.
F.K. Plous, Railway Age contributor and longtime Chicago advocate, refuses to mourn for the recently deceased Hoosier State. Plous works for Corridor Capital LLC, the company that made the unsuccessful attempt to get the contract to operate the train in 2014, but now he is not convinced that it was worth saving. He told this writer: “I refuse to ‘grieve’ the Hoosier State. It was such an anomalous and irrelevant little gesture of a train that even the tiniest regret amounts to overkill. I often characterize pathetic and irrelevant trains like the Hoosier State as ‘rolling museums,’ but in the case of the Hoosier Stat,e that appellation is not fitting because a museum usually makes an effort to recreate as faithfully as possible something that existed in the past while the Hoosier State represented nothing that existed in the past.” Plous mentioned the James Whitcomb Riley, which began running between the two cities in 1941 on the New York Central (Big Four) route and made the trip in 3½ hours: “By taking five hours for the same trip, the Hoosier State ‘revived’ something that had never existed, a pokey, lurching unreliable streamliner between those two cities.”
Plous did not criticize Indiana for running a train per se, but for running a train that appeared to have so little going for it. He speculated about what a better operation would be like: “If we could just go back to a reliable, daily, James Whitcomb Riley-like schedule, we could probably carry 300 passengers a day. If we could invest in infrastructure as Michigan and Illinois are doing and run 110-mph trains that make the trip in three hours, we could probably fill two or three frequencies a day. And if we could extend the improved infrastructure to Louisville and Cincinnati, we could fill ten daily trains between Chicago and Indy with five going to Louisville and five to Cincinnati.”
Plous is not the only advocate who has called for a “Hoosier Corridor” instead of the single train that ran until recently. Streby and others, including this writer, have recommended such a service. Some have also said that Louisville is not far enough, that trains should continue through Kentucky and go to Nashville. In the meantime, though, it is more difficult to generate enthusiasm among politicians and their constituents for frequent service on a corridor when the only train still running on that mileage only operates a few times each week, and not even once a day.
The demise of the Hoosier State may be a harbinger of things to come. Plous explored the history of the train and its imminent termination in a feature article in the April issue of All Aboard Indiana, the same issue that included Streby’s article quoted above. He blamed the State: “The more knowledgeable rail advocates, of course, understand that the State of Indiana actually sentenced the Hoosier State to death many years earlier when it repeatedly refused to invest the money needed to make intercity passenger trains successful. The news accounts rarely mention it, but the Hoosier State farrago is simply a private shame of the State of Indiana, which will not fund passenger trains even though it has a rail map with the potential to support a very strong and functional corridor service with a high potential to enhance the state’s business growth.” Plous particularly praised Indianapolis as a destination, with its station surrounded by a compact and active downtown, and with government facilities, sports and entertainment venues within walking distance.
Although Amtrak trains are part of America’s interstate commerce, it appears that decisions about where Americans can go by train will increasingly be made in state houses, as Magliari mentioned. There are only a few long-distance trains whose routes extend 750 miles or more. Much of the rest of the Amtrak network consists of state-supported trains. Under PRIIA Section 209, the states must pay the full cost of enhancing and operating these trains within their borders. States like Illinois, Michigan and California are investing in their corridors, and those corridors are popular. States like Oklahoma with the Heartland Flyer and Vermont with the Vermonter and the Ethan Allen Express only operate a train or two, without the commitment of investing in a corridor or running multiple frequencies on a line. The trains in those states depend more on the fortuity of local politics than the trains running along strong corridors. The Hoosier State may have been the worst example of such a train, but it may end up setting the standard for a grim future for shorter-distance Amtrak trains from now on.
Plous concluded his statement for Railway Age by placing the blame directly on Indiana officials: “Sorry to be so rough on Indiana, but they deserve it, even if they’re not the only one. New York DOT doesn’t understand the wealth-generating potential of the Water Level Route [the historic New York Central main, where Empire Service trains run today]. Pennsylvania does not understand the potential of the former Pennsylvania Railroad (now Norfolk Southern) main line. Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee are totally clueless about the economic potential of their rail routes. But Indiana should be particularly ashamed, because it’s got Michigan and Illinois right next door to serve as exemplars.”
This writer will miss the Hoosier State, because it is always sad when a train dies. She was too slow, was not marketed properly, and the Indiana politicians appeared particularly clueless about passenger trains. But this writer’s ride from Chicago to Indianapolis in 2016 was a wonderful blast from the past. The ex-Santa Fe dining car provided a taste of rail travel as it once was. The chicken piccata and lemon pudding cake were delicious, and the coffee even tasted particularly good, probably because it was served in a china cup.
David Peter Alan is Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition, an independent non-profit organization that advocates for better service on the Morris & Essex (M&E) and Montclair-Boonton rail lines operated by New Jersey Transit, as well as on connecting transportation. The Coalition, founded in 1979, is one of the nation’s oldest rail advocacy organizations. In New Jersey, Alan is a long-time member and/or board member of the NJ Transit Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee and Essex County Transportation Advisory Board. Nationally, he belongs to the Rail Users’ Network (RUN). Admitted to the New Jersey and New York Bars in 1981, he is a member of the U.S. Supreme Court Bar and a Registered Patent Attorney specializing in intellectual property and business law. Alan holds a B.S. in Biology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1970); M.S. in Management Science (M.B.A.) from M.I.T. Sloan School of Management (1971); M.Phil. from Columbia University (1976); and a J.D. from Rutgers Law School (1981).