A proposed Amtrak route would restore passenger service between Chicago, Fort Wayne, Columbus, and Pittsburgh. Can new federal investment make it happen?
By Ryan Schnurr
In Fort Wayne, Indiana, where I live, there’s a beautiful old downtown building called the Baker Street Station. It was designed by a Philadelphian architect and constructed in 1914, mostly out of brown brick. The main concourse has terrazzo floors, stained glass, and a forty-foot vaulted ceiling. Originally, the station operated as a stop on the Pennsylvania Railroad, but not anymore. Along the back side of the building runs an elevated train line. If you climbed up onto the tracks and started walking west, you’d end up in Chicago. Head east, and you’d eventually walk into Pittsburgh.
I love this building—partly because it’s nice to look at, and partly because of what it represents: an era of passenger rail service to and from the city. It was the most significant, and certainly the most attractive, of the four Fort Wayne stations. For a while it shuttled more than twenty thousand passengers every week on routes with names like the Trail Blazer (Chicago-New York); the Golden Triangle (Chicago-Pittsburgh); the Northern Arrow (Cincinnati-Mackinaw City, Michigan); and the Southland (Chicago-Florida). Six U.S. presidents, from Harding to Eisenhower, made whistle-stop speeches there. These days it’s operated as a private event center. For $750, you can rent it out for weddings and other parties.
Probably the main thing you need to know about passenger rail in Indiana specifically, and in the United States more generally, is that we used to have a robust network of trains you could ride just about anywhere you pleased, and then, over the course of thirty or forty years, we dismembered it in favor of cars and highways and airplanes. Places like the Baker Street Station are an echo of the time before that transformation, which ended, in the case of Fort Wayne, when Amtrak moved its last routes out of the city in 1990.
Twenty years ago, some people got together and started talking about getting another passenger line in Fort Wayne. In 2009, gaining steam, they formed a group called the Northern Indiana Passenger Rail Association (NIPRA), an offshoot of the Indiana Passenger Rail Alliance (IPRA, no N). The group’s main interest was the Midwest Rail Initiative, which would reboot additional trains out of Chicago, including a three-hundred-mile route from Chicago to Columbus, Ohio, tracing the Pennsylvania Railroad’s old Fort Wayne Line right through the heart of the Rust Belt. Smack in the middle would be Fort Wayne and the Baker Street Station.
A few weeks ago, I called Geoff Paddock, a NIPRA board member, to see how it’s going. In 2013, the organization published a feasibility study and business plan, and then Fort Wayne and other cities funded an environmental assessment and a Tier 1 Economic Impact Study (EIS), a requirement for federal railroad funds. The latter was completed in 2018 and now sits on a shelf gathering dust. The project stalled, Paddock said, because of a lack of funding, and because the state legislature has yet to get on board. “We’re not trying to take away from any highway building,” he told me. “But we think this should be a priority too.”
So far, it hasn’t been. But now the president is “Amtrak Joe,” the Secretary of Transportation is a former Indiana mayor, and there’s a new infrastructure plan floating around with a chunk of potential federal money for Amtrak. And what I and a lot of other people in town want to know is: when will Fort Wayne get its trains back?
It’s 1921, and if you live most places in Indiana, you can get most anyplace else by train. The state has an extensive system of interubans, a kind of electric light rail. From Fort Wayne, for example, you can take one south to Indianapolis, west toward Lafayette, or north to Kendallville and Waterloo, and dozens of other places between and beyond. Fort Wayne also sees a hundred long-distance trains a day, between a quarter and half of them carrying passengers. The Pennsylvania Railroad, at Baker Street, focuses on already-mentioned routes between Chicago and the northeast. The Wabash Station, just across the tracks, sees engines to and from Detroit, Toledo, and St. Louis. The Nickel Plate, on the other side of town, services Chicago, New York, and Buffalo. Many of these trains operate at well over a hundred miles per hour.
In present times, whenever I want to talk about trains, I call my friend Kelly Lynch. Kelly is vice president of the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society and works for a national railroad consulting group. “Indiana’s motto is ‘The Crossroads of America,’ and pre-highway, pre-interstate, it was,” he told me. “Every major railroad on the east coast had to come through Indiana to get to Chicago, and the majority of them were coming through the northern part of the state. So you had some of the world’s most famous passenger trains at that time coming through Fort Wayne.” (Pullman cars were also designed, built, and repaired here, at a major facility called the Pennsy Shops.)
On top of inter-city railways, many towns at that time had streetcars. At first these were mule-drawn, but by 1895, you could ride electric versions in Anderson, Columbus, Elwood, Evansville, Fort Wayne, Indianapolis, Kokomo, Logansport, Muncie, Richmond, Terre Haute, and Vincennes. It’s hard to think of now, but for a while, between streetcars, interurbans, and steam-powered passenger trains, most of Indiana was as well-connected, rail-wise, as the most well-connected metropolitan cities in the country today.
The heyday of passenger trains began in the 1880s and ‘90s and continued through at least the 1940s. “These trains were not there for the super wealthy,” Lynch said. “Regardless of your origin, your demographics, your status, you could get on a train and go.” Passenger trains became the infrastructure of an era. They carried immigrant families east from Ellis Island to growing ethnic enclaves in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Chicago, carried Black people north to industrial cities in the Great Migrations, carried starry-eyed city-seekers, carried commuters and vacationers and mourners, carried young men off to World Wars, and, later, carried back both the survivors and the dead.
The Depression was a bad time for railroad companies and basically everybody else. Then cars boomed, and the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 subsidized forty-one thousand miles of railroads’ primary competition. Railroad companies were steamed that the government was putting so much money into car and air travel while the railroads had to cover operating costs by themselves. They were bleeding money due to this new federally subsidized competition. The 1950s and ‘60s saw a pattern of shutdowns, mergers, more shutdowns, and more consolidation.
In the ‘70s, Amtrak took over the faltering private market, briefly stemming the long-distance decline. But not everywhere. Amtrak eventually moved its Fort Wayne routes thirty miles north to Waterloo. In November 1990, the last passenger train rolled out of Fort Wayne for good.
It’s 2021, and if you live most places in Indiana—well, you’re going to need a car. Streetcars and interurbans are gone, and there are only a few Amtrak lines that still run through the state: the Cardinal connects Indianapolis to Chicago and Cincinnati; the Wolverine stops off in northwest Indiana between Michigan and Chicago; the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited both run between Cleveland and Chicago, covering the same set of tracks parallel to I-80/I-90. The only non-Amtrak passenger line, the South Shore, is an interurban into and out of Chicago, terminating to the east at the South Bend Airport.
Amtrak is notorious for delays. I once waited two hours in the middle of the night at the Waterloo station north of Fort Wayne, which is a mild amount of time compared to other stories I’ve heard. This is often because freight railroads own most of the tracks anywhere outside of the northeast, so Amtrak has to pull over and wait for their trains to pass. The lines through Waterloo are absolutely saturated with freight. Amtrak pays the freight companies to use the tracks and is supposed to get a kind of right-of-way. But nobody enforces that rule. The justice department only tried once, forty years ago. So, in practice, people sit and wait while paper and appliances and cattle roll by.
The trains aren’t always late—in fact, in my experience, they are usually on time—but you can imagine this reputation presents a certain problem re: mass appeal. The bunch-ups can get particularly bad when you have two trains and only one set of freight-company-owned tracks. The old Fort Wayne line is now owned and operated by Norfolk Southern, CFE, and CSX. There used to be two sets of tracks running between Fort Wayne and Chicago, but when Amtrak left that route in 1990, the freight companies went along and tore up the second track.
That wrinkles the case for the Northern Indiana Passenger Rail Association, which originally wanted to run a high-speed line between Chicago and Columbus with miles-per-hour in the hundreds. But that would require a second line, and they figure the state won’t spring to put the old one back. So the current idea is for a regular-speed Amtrak line operating at seventy-nine miles-per-hour. Paddock said the track from Fort Wayne to northwest Indiana is about as straight as you can get, with less freight traffic, so it would be faster than the current lines. And they’ll only need to add signals and “passing track” in a few locations, which is much cheaper, possibly as little as $3-5 million per mile. (The current I-69 expansion project between Indianapolis and Evansville costs about $20 million per mile.)
All well and good, you might be thinking, but what’s so great about a passenger train? I asked Paddock and Lynch that question. The big-picture argument is that passenger rail means a stronger, more effective transportation ecosystem with more options, and thus more freedom of movement, for Indiana residents. Unlike highways, trains serve under-served communities, namely people without cars or who can’t drive, while also still benefiting people who do own and drive cars. Trains are more energy-efficient, too; according to Amtrak’s 2019 report and the U.S. Department of Energy, its fleet is forty-seven percent more energy-efficient than car travel and thirty-four percent more than air travel. Also, they are more comfortable than both.
The projected cost of the Chicago-Fort Wayne-Columbus route, in NIPRA’s 2013 study—which included high-speed rail—was $1.25 billion. But, like airports, railroads can also generate a load of money for a community. The NIPRA study estimated the route would serve between two and three million riders per year and create nearly forty thousand jobs (twelve thousand during construction, and just shy of twenty-seven thousand permanent), plus an overall increase in economic activity for every city along the corridor. It projected a return of $1.70 for every $1 invested, with a total benefit, over the course of thirty years, estimated at $6.24 billion.
These numbers are out of date now; some more recent plans even suggest extending the route all the way to Pittsburgh. But NIPRA’s point was that the route could “play a major role in building the new economy of the 21st century for the corridor.” The Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) apparently agrees. It included the project in its 2017 Indiana State Rail Plan under the categories “Transportation Effectiveness” and “Economic Development.” These plans are updated every four years, so the next one is due this fall; the Chicago-Fort Wayne-Columbus-Pittsburgh route appears to be included.
So far as I can tell, here’s what it will take to make the Chicago-Fort Wayne-Columbus-Pittsburgh route happen (not necessarily in this order): The federal government will need to pass an infrastructure bill with a hefty line item for transit, namely Amtrak. The Indiana legislature will have to fund a commission and study and commit to a certain amount of investment, and INDOT will have to implement it. Ohio will have to do something similar. Then the feds will need to partner with the states to determine the route and stops, take bids, and fund design and construction. If that process creaked into motion today, Paddock estimates, a person could ride this hypothetical line inside of five years.
It’s likely to take longer, partly because we still don’t have an infrastructure bill, and partly because the statehouse remains thus far unconvinced. One of its major hang-ups, Paddock said, is cost. The legislature wants to know: will the project be profitable, or at least pay for itself? NIPRA says yes, to a point. It would need a certain amount of investment for the initial construction and operations, most of which would have to come from federal infrastructure spending. Past transportation projects in Indiana have worked on an eighty-twenty percentage split, where eighty percent is shouldered by the federal government. The interested parties have something similar in mind now.
The question of profitability is a frustrating one for rail advocates, who, like the railroad companies of the ‘50s and ‘60s, wonder why we don’t hold highways or airports to the same standard. States regularly subsidize projects that contribute to the public good—that is, after all, one of its most basic functions. Indiana is currently extending I-69 from Indianapolis to Evansville at an estimated cost of $4 billion, and looking to upgrade U.S. 30, which, incidentally, covers roughly the same path as the proposed Amtrak line from Chicago to Columbus through Fort Wayne. NIPRA wants the state to give that route the same consideration.
The organization is working with a coalition that includes the Federal Railroad Administration, the Rail Passengers Association, and more than a dozen cities and planning organizations in Indiana and Ohio, including the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission and INDOT. Last month, NIPRA and INDOT had a call to talk about the project. Both acronyms said it was a good meeting. Scott Manning, a spokesman for INDOT, told me the big question, as far as his agency is concerned, is how the recent and much-discussed federal infrastructure bills are going to shake out. “Federal funding is a critical launching pad from INDOT’s perspective,” he said. “It really is dependent on that, because the current state budget does not allocate any funds for passenger rail projects anywhere in the state.”
There’s a lot of passenger rail interest at the national level right now, especially among Democrats. But there are so many potential bills floating around it’s hard to land on a number. Some of the ones I’ve seen are: $66 billion for both passenger and freight rail, $95 billion for passenger and freight rail, $80 billion for Amtrak alone, and a couple of bills in which the amount is not immediately apparent. Whatever the number ends up being, it will presumably fund new Amtrak lines, more routes on existing lines, and infrastructure improvements such as those that could limit delays.
Many high-profile Washington rail advocates—Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg—are Democrats, while Indiana’s senators, Todd Young and Mike Braun, and the representative for Fort Wayne’s district, Jim Banks, are Republicans, and the Indiana legislature has a Republican supermajority, which sounds like a recipe for bupkis. But the Chicago-Fort Wayne-Columbus project has support from mayors of both parties in cities along the route, and NIPRA’s key supporters in the statehouse include Republicans Dennis Kruse, Dave Abbott, and Sharon Negele. In the 2021 session, Kruse put together a bill to establish a passenger rail commission, Senate Bill 9, which did not receive a vote. (I reached out to Kruse’s office but have not heard back.)
A few months ago, Amtrak released a draft map of what its system could potentially look like by 2035, based on Biden’s proposed $80 million investment. It’s a moderate but expanded vision of passenger rail in the country, with thirty new routes, including one from Cleveland to Cincinnati through Columbus, and increased service on others, including the Cardinal as it passes through Indianapolis. Fort Wayne was left off the map entirely.
Fort Wayne is not the only Rust Belt city in this predicament. Almost every place on the proposed route between Chicago and Pittsburgh lost passenger rail last century, along with other mid-sized cities like Akron, Youngstown, and Dayton, Ohio and Scranton, Pennsylvania. Columbus is the second-largest city in the country without Amtrak service. (Some cities, like Cleveland, Toledo, Erie, Buffalo, and Indianapolis, retain limited, often inconveniently timed service.) Passenger rail was instrumental to the social, cultural, and economic life of so many of these places. New federal transportation spending, including the route in question, could help revive these lost connections.
One of the greatest challenges to a project like the proposed Chicago-Fort Wayne-Columbus-Pittsburgh line, Lynch told me, is that most people in the U.S. are at least a generation or two removed from direct experience with trains as a serious transportation option. “Because we’re so remote, comparatively, from present, successful passenger rail options, it is really, really hard to envision what it would be like,” he said. Which makes it hard to drum up public and political support, and to convince political bodies that passenger lines are as essential as airports and highways—and ought to be funded accordingly.
But that’s exactly what it’s going to take to put Fort Wayne on the map and make passenger rail a viable part of Indiana’s transportation future. INDOT’s Manning said the draft Amtrak map is just that: a draft, subject to change. Everybody I talked to seemed to think that if political leadership pulls through, there’s a not-bad chance the Fort Wayne Line could carry passengers again. “There is a lot of potential for the future, and we’re hoping there’s a good shot now with more support than we’ve seen in a long time,” Paddock said. “But we’ve got a long way to go.” ■
Ryan Schnurr is editor of Belt Magazine.
Cover image: Amtrak’s Broadway Limited makes a stop in Fort Wayne. Public domain image.
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