Back in the news this month is the results of bidding by Amtrak and four private companies to operate the Hoosier State train between Indianapolis and Chicago. I wrote about the events leading up to the bidding process here, but simply put, Congress changed the law by making subsidies for short haul corridor train service the responsibility of the states.
Corridor Capital's interest in trains traces to Chairman Coston, whose work history traces to Amtrak operations at Chicago's Union Station which was then politically bolstered by appointment to the now-expired Amtrak Reform Council by former Senate Majority Leader Tom "Puff" Daschle (Dem-SD). Frankly, Corridor Capital appears to be a business structure created to give Mr. Coston a place where he can play "big shot" with "choo-choo" trains.
Corridor Capital LLC is a Chicago-based passenger-train development company that assembles all of the elements that states and communities need to manage their own passenger-rail service. Just as a real-estate developer brings planners, architects, engineers, financiers, contractors and legal expertise together to open a new building or project, Corridor Capital brings together the appropriate cadre of civil and mechanical engineers, railcar and locomotive builders, station and terminal managers, planners, financiers, ticketing/marketing professionals, maintenance contractors, hospitality services and information-technology specialists that governments require in order to establish and operate their own passenger-rail services. Corridor Capital LLC also maintains close relationships with Amtrak, our partner and operator of all state-supported corridor services, and with the Association of American Railroads, to make sure that clients’ operations interact successfully with the nation’s freight-railroad industry.
Corridor ... is a passenger-rail development company which assembles and integrates the multiple elements needed to provide a successful intercity passenger-train service. The company is managed by seasoned transportation professionals with decades of successful experience in planning and operating passenger trains. The company owns uniform passenger rolling stock and commands the professional skills of several dozen additional veteran passenger train professionals, including civil and mechanical engineers, passenger car and locomotive builders, station and terminal managers, locomotive and car maintenance specialists, planners, financiers, information technologists, travel marketing and ticketing specialists and contractors providing onboard food, beverage and hospitality services.Remember the wisdom of Samuel L. Clemons, writing as Mark Twain: "Actions speak louder than words, but not nearly as often." Shania Twain (no relation to Mark) also reminds us:
If elephants could fly I'd be a little more optimistic
But I don't see that happening anytime soon
I don't mean to sound so pessimistic
But I don't think that the cow really jumped over the moonCorridor's website is not at all reassuring about their claimed resources and capabilities.
Like most businesses today, Corridor Capital stays nimble by owning as few assets as possible and using contractors to provide specific services, facilities and products on an ‘as-needed’ basis.Allowing the Hoosier State to be operated by Corridor is not quite as simple as might be imagined. For example, Amtrak has contractual rights to operate over the tracks that make up the Hoosier State route and Corridor does not.
Amtrak alone has statutory access authority to operate corridor and long-distance passenger trains over freight railroad-owned track, which effectively eliminates competing operators unless the freight railroad voluntarily agrees to grant others access. While commuter agencies have successfully negotiated such access for operators other than Amtrak, access over non-commuter, state-supported passenger rail corridors is problematic for operators other than Amtrak.Amtrak might, for example, insist that their unionized train crews be contracted to run the trains - a real bummer, especially if Corridor is considering the labor dollar savings and work rule avoidance that should be theirs to harvest. Speculations are rampant that the poorly performing Amtrak conductors and engineers will continue to operate the trains.
There is much speculation as to exactly what was contained in CC's accepted bid, but the details have not yet been released.
Fritz Plous, the director of communications for Corridor Capital, spoke of his company’s plans to improve the Hoosier State during a town hall discussion in Crawfordsville, Ind.
In the short term, Corridor Capital needs to boost ridership, which is now about 85 passengers a day aboard the quad-weekly train.
“We need to see it at double that,” said Plous said, adding that such amenities Wi-Fi and information screens could draw more passengers.
“That’s the first step towards legitimacy: Get people a nice, new train,” Plous said. But, “the funding has to be there.”
Another priority will be reducing the current running time of 5 hours and 10 minutes from Indianapolis to Chicago to about two hours less. Plous did not provide any details as to how that could be accomplished on the train’s circuitous route.
“We won the beauty contest,” Plous said. “We don’t know what mojo made INDOT choose us.”Cutting time from the 5 hour plus, 196 mile trip could begin with the elimination of stops where few passengers get on or off the trains - namely, Crawfordsville, Beech Grove, Rensselaer and Dyer, would eliminate only 5,100 daytrippers per year (as well as the unneeded side trip to Beech Grove's Amtrak repair facility). It is silly to even think that such minuscule service levels need be seriously considered but you will not find this suggestion elsewhere. With service stops reduced from seven to three (Indianapolis, Lafayette and the Chicago terminus), improved run times on the new express schedule would help attract more ridership but not likely enough to supplant the option preferred by Hoosiers - driving up Interstate 65 to Chicago's loop and airports.
New mass transit service proposals always stipulate some unreachable ridership goal and predictably Corridor Capital is looking to double ridership - but.that.will.never.happen unless the new Hoosier State Express also runs on the days when the national Cardinal train operates. Wifi service would be nice, but the Gray Dog and Megabus already offer it, plus faster times and lower fares. Overpriced and often inedible foodservice vending will not displace the brown bags now carried onto the trains - an it will not encourage more ridership.
Americans may love trains but they will not be inconvenienced to ride them nor will they continue to pay the exorbitant costs to operate them. When the Hoosier State train (and all government-operated mass transit) can run on time and not penalize state taxpayers with what could become unneeded subsidies, the bloom may return to the rose but don't hold your breath in anticipation of such a change.
The ironies of all ironies may have suddenly intervened to put an end to the "new" Hoosier State service before it begins.
Amtrak’s Hoosier State may be doomed after the City of Indianapolis decided to cease helping to fund the quad-weekly service between Chicago and Indy. Indianapolis was one of a handful of communities served by the train that agreed to help fund it [to the tune of $300,000] last October after a new federal law took effect that shifted more of the burden of funding the losses of short-haul trains onto state and local governments. “They have told me they are not interested in doing it next year, and take that as a final no,” said Bob Zier, director of multimodal program and planning for Indiana Department of Transportation.But Indiana DOT is eyeing the state's 2 billion dollar surplus and is conspiring with rent-seeking Corridor Capital to raise the stakes rather than back away from a little-used train that should be left for dead.
Zier tells Inside INdiana Business, "if we lose passenger rail service that we have today, I'm not sure we can get it back."
He says the state is still working with Indianapolis officials to determine why they aren't interested in contributing to the route. Zier says he would be "very disappointed" if an agreement can't be reached that includes future support from the Marion County city.
He says the train could operate in "reverse" to not only deliver Hoosiers to Chicago, but to bring economic development opportunities, business travelers and commerce back into the state.
Zier says the state is seeking corporate sponsors to help offset some costs. He says some ideas being discussed with Corridor Capital, CSX and Canadian National would include a faster train that has a "wow factor" for travelers and would knock up to 90 minutes off of travel times.
He says other concepts that involves "high-level capital investment" would shrink time between Indianapolis and Chicago to 2 or 2 1/2 hours and become the "premiere way of getting to Chicago."OOPS. High-speed rail has raised it ugly head (possibly involving those two Wisconsin Talgos?) but it simply cannot be supported and the investment repaid by fares achievable in flyover country. Kiss the state surplus goodbye but be sure to rope Illinois into the mix in order to finally drive that state into bankruptcy. A better idea is to fire Bob Zier. Are you listening, Mike Pence?