Amtrak is adding free Wi-Fi, modest food service and business-class seating to a passenger line that runs between Indianapolis and Chicago, while Indiana remains in talks with a private vendor that wants to operate the line.
Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman announced the new amenities for the Hoosier State line, which runs 196 miles between Indianapolis and Chicago four days a week, during a Wednesday visit to Indiana's capital. He said the changes were among the improved services sought by the communities the line serves, but added that others, including more than one daily departure from Indianapolis, would take "a capital investment for the future."
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"It takes time to make those things happen — things don't happen in this business overnight. If the funding is there it has to be planned and used and we have to figure that out," Boardman said during a news conference at Indianapolis' Union Station.
Boardman said Wi-Fi service will be added to the line Wednesday night, although there could be areas along the route where service would not be available.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Andre Carson said he would do what he can to keep the Hoosier State line in service because he said it helps spur local economies along its route. "Hoosiers have a tremendous stake in keeping this service alive," he said.
After Wednesday's announcement, Boardman and Carson boarded a special Amtrak train and touted the improvements during stops at the four other Indiana communities served by the Hoosier State line: Crawfordsville, Lafayette, Rensselaer and Dyer.
Congress passed legislation in 2008 that took effect last fall, ending funding for passenger rail routes less than 750 miles long, including the Hoosier State line. Amtrak's long-distance Cardinal service that operates three days a week between Cincinnati and Chicago, via Indianapolis, was not affected by the loss of federal funding.
The Indiana Department of Transportation and seven local partners, including Indianapolis, Lafayette and Crawfordsville, agreed to pay Amtrak a $2.7 million subsidy to keep the Hoosier State line running for one year last October. INDOT and those communities are funding the line through Jan. 31, under a four-month extension.
INDOT spokesman Will Wingfield said the agency is involved in ongoing negotiations with Corridor Capital LLC pursuing a deal under which that company would assume operation of the line. Boardman said the private operator was supposed to take over the line Wednesday, but Wingfield said there's no specific deadline for a possible deal.
INDOT has also not made any decision on whether it might extend its funding for the line past Jan. 31 if there's still no agreement in hand, Wingfield said.
Bill Malcom, a member of the advocacy group Hoosiers for Passenger Rail, said the Hoosier State line's ridership has been limited by its 6:30 a.m. departure time and late return time.
"It's a little bit late, so we need to either add another train — a second train — or change the departure and arrival times to be more business friendly," Malcolm said.