'Hoosier State' Iowa Pacific Holdings takeover tentatively set for Aug. 2

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A June test train pauses at Lafayette, Ind.
Michael D. Harding
INDIANAPOLIS – Following a flurry of eleventh-hour contract negotiations this week between Amtrak and the Indiana Department of Transportation, Iowa Pacific Holdings and INDOT, and between Iowa Pacific and CSX Transportation, the Indianapolis-Chicago Hoosier State’s debut with Illinois Central paint scheme-inspired rolling stock is now scheduled for the northbound run Sunday morning. But both INDOT and Amtrak must confirm completion of a switch relocation in on CSX Transportation trackage in Indianapolis Saturday afternoon, according to Indiana Department of Transportation spokesman Will Wingfield.

He declined to speculate at the end of the business day Friday as to whether an Amtrak train would operate if the switch was not completed.

Amtrak’s latest extension to supply passenger cars and locomotives for the Indiana-supported train was for one month: through July 31, 2015. The contracts that all parties executed this week begin on Aug. 2, because the tri-weekly Chicago-Washington-New York Cardinal travels in both directions through Indiana on Saturdays. Amtrak conductors and engineers will continue to operate all trains, but on days the Hoosier State runs, they will staff Iowa Pacific-provided equipment.

Since March, there have been a series of inspections of the GP40FH-2 locomotives; heritage coaches; and full-length, ex-Santa Fe dome car Iowa Pacific plans to use.

A test run occurred on June 28, 2015, just before the previous contract extension expired, but too many responsibility and cost details remained unresolved for the transition to take place on July 1. Those issues included who would maintain potable water dispensers at Indianapolis and a request by CSX Transportation to relocate a switch leading from its line to the newly-established Iowa Pacific servicing facility there.

Because so many extensions of the current service had taken place since the first one occurred in October, 2013, none of the parties was anxious to announce a start date or promote the takeover in advance until the signatures were dry on the new contracts. Trains News Wire has learned that the final snag Friday involved the Indianapolis switch relocation.

Once the takeover is complete and Iowa Pacific equipment begins running, travelers between Indianapolis and Chicago will face service options that vary depending upon the day and direction of travel.

Iowa Pacific’s equipment will feature Wi-Fi, a dome with café service downstairs, and leg-rest seating in heritage coaches in both directions on Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday. Those cars and locomotives also run Monday evening to Indianapolis and back Tuesday morning to Chicago. Amtrak had previously offered bare-bones, coach-only trains on these trips, except for a three-month period between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31, 2014, when it added Wi-Fi and business class seating – but no full café service – to show the state and community stakeholders a possible alternative to going with a non-Amtrak third party.

Amtrak’s Cardinal continues to run in both directions on Thursdays and Saturdays, as well as north to Chicago on Monday mornings and south out of Chicago to the East Coast on Tuesday evening. It operates with a “Diner-lite” Amfleet II café car that also serves breakfasts and dinners, respectively, along with typical Amtrak snack bar food. But full meal table seating preference is always given to sleeping car passengers, whose food is included in the sleeper prices. Accommodating all of those passengers is a challenge when the train operates with two (usually sold-out) sleeping cars as it does through the spring, summer and fall months. As with all long-distance trains except the Palmetto, the Cardinal does not offer Wi-Fi to coach passengers.

Pricing between the two operations also varies wildly, because Amtrak must maximize long-distance revenue at the expense of Chicago-Indianapolis travelers who would occupy a seat for a shorter distance. For instance, the top-priced “Flexible” Indianapolis-Chicago adult coach fare is $48, but that was not high enough to keep the Cardinal arriving into Chicago on Aug. 1, to sell out completely on Friday afternoon (though one $206 roomette was available). Most seats for Amtrak's Hoosier State have sold at the “Saver” price of $24.

Iowa Pacific Holding’s president Ed Ellis tells Trains New Wire that for the first month while Amtrak incorporates new pricing into its reservation system, passengers may sit in the dome and will pay for meals and beverages served there instead of having food included in the ticket price.

“We want to give people a chance to sample our version of business class,” which will be similar to breakfasts and dinners served on Pullman Rail Journeys excursions from Chicago to New Orleans and other destinations,” Ellis says. “It will be quite different than other Midwest business class service, which only includes a newspaper and a soft drink or coffee,” he adds.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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