January 1, 2017
Environmental assessment marks start of exciting times for rail fans in northeast Indiana
Geoff Paddock is the city councilman for the Fifth District and a board member of the Northeast Indiana Passenger Rail Association.
After years of working, planning, fund-raising and coordination, there is good news to report for passenger rail supporters.
An environmental assessment, consistent with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, will finally be conducted to evaluate a possible passenger rail route from Chicago through Fort Wayne to Columbus, Ohio. The assessment is the next critical step toward possibly restoring passenger service. If results are positive – and a 2013 feasibility study and business plan suggest they will be – then plans for preliminary engineering and eventual construction may come forward. The estimated time of the study is 12 months; it should commence this fall and cost about $350,000, much less than originally anticipated.
Arriving at this stage has been a long and tedious process. Fort Wayne lost service in 1990 as Amtrak consolidated trains and the tracks they shared with freight rail lines across the United States. I have advocated for a return to rail service for nearly two decades as a community volunteer and as a city councilman. The Northeast Indiana Passenger Rail Association has taken that advocacy to a new level.
NIPRA, led by Chairman Fred Lanahan, has been working with the Indiana Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration and many cities in Indiana and Ohio to raise funds for the environmental assessment. This study used to be funded by the federal government. However, that was drastically cut back, along with Amtrak operations funding, over the past few years. In 2014, an ordinance I sponsored in City Council appropriated $200,000 to put toward funding of the assessment. Allen County government contributed $50,000, and many private sources in Fort Wayne, northeast Indiana and northwest Ohio have contributed to the cost of the study as well.
Once the assessment is complete, NIPRA hopes to emulate the Hoosier State passenger train line now in operation between Indianapolis and Chicago. Last year the state invested $3 million to update the line with modern train seats, where passengers can enjoy comfortable coaches while utilizing Wi-Fi and enjoying food and beverages. This modern and comfortable ride has performed well over the past year and a half, with a good record of on-time arrivals and departures. Passengers can relax or work after leaving Indianapolis and arrive in Chicago in about the same time it would take to drive.
Passenger trains currently share tracks with freight trains. Maximum speeds will slowly increase as improvements along the lines are made, which benefit both freight and passenger trains. INDOT is interested in working with us in replicating this service from Chicago to Fort Wayne and Columbus. Exact times and numbers of trains and stops will be determined with the assessment and subsequent engineering studies, but this is an exciting advancement that has great potential.
Passenger rail travel will fill a much-needed void in our local transportation. The train will serve a broad range of people across the spectrum and particularly benefit young travelers, those with disabilities and those who do not find air travel affordable. It will also serve the business traveler and the great medical and orthopedic corridor that is growing between Warsaw and Fort Wayne along U.S. 30. Implementing higher speeds of rail travel, as funds become available, will attract more passengers and add hundreds of jobs in the service industry in our region.
The long-term economic implications to our local and state economy could be substantial. The 2013 business plan pointed out that speeds of up to 110 mph, with several trains running daily between Chicago, Fort Wayne and Columbus, would appeal to 2 million riders a year and could be self-sustaining after three to five years of operation. The results of such a system could produce thousands of jobs in the two-state region over the next three decades. Reviving train service through Fort Wayne would solidify the rebirth of downtown and in many of the neighborhoods around the Baker Street station.
Receiving the go-ahead with INDOT and the Federal Railroad Administration to begin the environmental impact study is exciting and gratifying. It demonstrates that years of hard work, planning and coordination by so many people will eventually lead to success. Many thanks to state and local leaders who have helped raise money for the environmental assessment. Most importantly, thanks to the thousands of northeast Indiana residents who have supported this effort and contacted their local and state officials for support. Those efforts will pay off. Hopefully, within a few years, train service will be restored to the Baker Street Station.