The Shame of Indiana
April 9, 2019
By Fritz Plous
The Hoosier State has suffered the indignation of poor schedules and service cuts, as well as recurring existential threats in the Inidana state legislature. Ironically, the route it serves is one of the most promising in the midwest.
The news accounts rarely say it, but this farrago is simply a private shame of the State of Indiana, which will not fund passenger trains appropriately 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 business growth in the state.
Based on the performance of daytime corridor trains in 16 other states, a small investment by the State of Indiana could create something of a corridor-train showcase on an inverted-Y-shaped route connecting Chicago with Indianapolis (196 miles) and then branching into two 100-mile routes connecting Indy with Cincinnati and Louisville, respectively.
If Indiana were to invest in infrastructure improvements raising the passenger-train speed limit on this network to 110 mph--as Illinois and Michigan already have done on the Chicago-St. Louis and Chicago-Detroit routes--the network would be very busy and the payoff for Indiana would be greater than for any of the other states because of some attributes unique to Indiana.
For example, Purdue University, with its enrollment of 41,000 (many of them living within walking distance of the depot), enables the city of Lafayette (pop. 73,000) to punch way above its weight class in generating rail travel. Purdue has a huge out-of-state and foreign-student population that relies on O'Hare Airport to get home, and a 110-mph corridor-train service could get these people up to Chicago in less than 90 minutes or to a station next to Indianapolis International Airport in about 30 minutes. But the State of Indiana doesn't care.
The city of Indianapolis also has a unique potential to benefit from passenger-train service because of the geographic location of Indianapolis Union Station. Unlike most big "downtown" rail stations, which usually are situated in a sketchy border area separating the central business district from an older manufacturing/warehousing district, Indianapolis Union station actually is right in the heart of downtown (and a really nice downtown, with most of its classic WW I-era office and hotel buildings intact and restored). A passenger alighting from a train walks out the original main entrance into a charming little park and by walking two blocks to the right ends up in the heart of the central business and hotel district or by walking three blocks to the left is in the middle of the State House and government-offices complex.
But it gets better. Just across the tracks to the west of the depot is the Lucas Oil Stadium, making Indianapolis one of the few cities in the U.S. where an out-of-town visitor can step off a train and walk right into an NFL stadium to watch a game. No taxis, Ubers, car rentals or charter buses needed--just ride a train to the stadium, walk from the game to a bar or restaurant afterwards (you're in the heart of the hospitality district too), and then board a train home.
Because of its central location and strong downtown, Indianapolis should be the conference center of choice for businesses in the Lower Midwest. It's the ideal central point for meetings--for the day or for a multi-day function--for businesses in Chicago, Louisville, Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus and even places as far away as Pittsburgh and St. Louis. But nobody in Indiana government cares, and even the city of Indianapolis seems not to sense this location's potential under a properly organized passenger-rail system.
Some people say the state's disdain for trains has something to do with its love of its rural heritage. Indiana sees itself largely as a farm state and does not see the potential of its one large city, much less the potential of passenger trains that meet there.
Other critics say the anti-train attitude is a heritage of the state's love affair with the auto industry. The northeast part of the state is particularly vested in automotive technology because of its adjacency to Detroit, which historically has sourced parts from Fort Wayne and surrounding communities. South Bend used to build Studebakers, Elkhart and Goshen are the capital of the RV and mobile-home industries, Fort Wayne cranks out Tokheim gas pumps and hundreds of smaller suppliers support these name-brand industries.
Result: Indiana is mesmerized by its rural and automotive heritage to the point where it cannot envisage any other form of transportation. Trains are for carrying the state's corn and soybeans to market. The South Shore Line is an invasive species good only for carrying Hoosiers to their jobs in Chicago. Indy's classic Richardsonian romanesque Union Station is a hotel and conference center with a bus station on its backside and the remains of its train-handling facilities neglected and maintained only at the minimal level needed to shelter sleeping bums.
State officials are proud of their "pro-business" attitudes and policies, but in fact the state's devotion to business growth can be summed up not so much policies but an attitude: Low taxes. Keeping taxes down is the state's sole development strategy. Actually investing to attract business is not in the state's vocabulary.
And investing in passenger rail service is off the table... unless we ask loudly enough for it.