UPDATED: The Indiana Department of Transportation will continue to support operation of "Hoosier State Line" passenger train service through April, as Acting Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feinberg reviews an INDOT complaint that had the agency ready to stop the rail service.
INDOT Commissioner Karl Browning had previously announced that Hoosier State operations between Indianapolis and Chicago would end April 1 because INDOT objected to an FRA requirement that puts responsibility on the state agency to assure the train operators meet federal safety rules. But on March 13 Browning announced the extension after a phone conversation with Feinberg.
"It is not clear that the FRA will change its mind," Browning said. However, "because Ms. Feinberg committed to reviewing this, we want to give the FRA another opportunity to consider the problems Indiana has been airing."
For months, state officials have been pushing back against a federal determination that INDOT must be responsible for passenger trains meeting federal safety provisions on its state-supported service.
Browning had notified U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on March 6 of the decision to end service on the state-funded route, saying, "Indiana finds itself in an unfortunate situation created due to an untenable requirement of the Federal Railroad Administration."
After INDOT announced its intention to stop the service, Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman said the "daily Amtrak service to Indianapolis does not have to end in April. Amtrak has offered to continue to
operate the train on a month-to-month basis," and could run it "using one of the proven models we've used in other states."
The FRA has held that INDOT would be the party responsible for compliance with federal rail safety laws, as the entity contracting for Hoosier State service four days a week between Indianapolis and Chicago.
"INDOT cannot agree to become a railroad or a railroad carrier," Browning told Foxx, "as that would require a significantly higher commitment of resources, the assumption of additional liability and uncertainty over employment practices."
Citing "historically bad departure and on-time performance that has depressed ridership," Browning wrote that INDOT has been working for a year to improve the Hoosier State service, through negotiations with Amtrak and third-party provider Iowa Pacific Holdings.
AASHTO Journal reported earlier this year that INDOT had agreed to support a short extension of the Amtrak service while negotiations continued. If it goes ahead and closes the Hoosier State Line, Indiana would be the only state out of 19, with 28 state-supported routes, to not complete a long-term funding plan to keep a route going.
Under the proposed service, Amtrak would have served as the primary operator, working with host railroads, providing train and engine crews, and managing reservation and ticketing. Iowa Pacific would have provided the train equipment, train maintenance, on-board services and marketing.
INDOT said it partly modeled this proposed service after Amtrak's Piedmont service, which operates in North Carolina between Charlotte and Raleigh. There, the North Carolina Department of Transportation owns the equipment, but contracts with Amtrak for operations and with private contractors to improve and grow passenger rail.
INDOT alluded in its correspondence with federal officials to how the North Carolina DOT resisted such an FRA responsibility designation for that agency.
The AP reported that INDOT's chief legal counsel, Lori Torres, said North Carolina successfully sued the FRA in 2008 over that issue for the Piedmont service.
INDOT said that under the FRA rules, "all states that support passenger rail services would be considered railroad carriers. This burdensome interpretation exposes states to significant increases in cost, paperwork and liability."
However, said Browning, "passenger rail providers and the host railroads are already required to comply with FRA rules. Requiring a redundant layer of bureaucracy would not create improvements in passenger rail service or safety – it would only increase taxpayer costs."
In its March 6 announcement, the state agency directed Hoosier State travelers toward other transportation options between Indianapolis and Chicago they could use after April 1.
Those include Amtrak's separate "Cardinal" service that will continue to operate three days a week – Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays northbound and Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays southbound.
INDOT also pointed would-be train travelers to intercity bus and air travel options.
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