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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
The Amtrak station at Waterloo consists of a Plexiglas hut just feet from the tracks. But a $1.8 million federal grant is expected to help make significant upgrades to the site.

Gravy train for Waterloo

$1.8 million federal grant will improve Amtrak stop

Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
A westbound freight train rolls past the old Waterloo depot and Town Manager DeWayne Nodine on Friday. Nodine has secured a grant to upgrade the site.

For 20 years, Waterloo’s Amtrak station has remained static despite the stop’s popularity:

A small, dimly lit Plexiglas shelter is surrounded by weedy gravel lots, exposing waiting passengers to the elements and causing trains to have to stop twice to load and unload for lack of space.

Town officials hope a $1.8 million federal grant announced this week will change the landscape, adding a full-length platform to allow passengers to board and depart at the same time, improving station lighting to meet federal disability act standards and improve safety, and incorporating the city’s restored historic rail depot – and its restrooms.

The platform will have a canopy and ADA-accessible ramps and walkways, and parking will be added near the Waterloo Depot, Town Manager DeWayne Nodine said Friday.

The grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation takes into account Waterloo’s popularity among Indiana Amtrak stops. Last year, the Waterloo station had the third-highest ridership of any Indiana station after Indianapolis and Lafayette.

Two trains serve the station, which is less than two miles from Interstate 69’s Exit 134: Capitol Limited between Chicago and Washington, D.C., and Lakeshore Limited from Chicago to New York City and Boston. It’s the most convenient train option for many northeast Indiana residents since Amtrak halted service to Fort Wayne in 1990.

During the last fiscal year, slightly more than 19,000 people rode the trains from the Waterloo station, an increase from fewer than 18,000 the year before, according to Amtrak.

Amtrak, a government-owned corporation organized in 1971, provides intercity passenger train service in the U.S. Its services, and the government money spent on them, have frequently been a source of debate; President Bush proposed killing Amtrak in his 2006 budget proposal, suggesting private enterprise could do it better.

And Waterloo’s role as an Amtrak stop hasn’t always been secure. In 2005, a House subcommittee proposed eliminating lines that required federal subsidies of more than $30 a passenger, which would’ve eliminated all Waterloo routes.

But Amtrak said it has made progress in investing and improving its services, increasing ridership nearly 37 percent since 2000. This month, it said it set a new annual ridership record in 2009 of more than 28.7 million passengers, a 5.7 percent increase from the year before.

Getting the grant was a major hurdle on the road to improving Waterloo’s station. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, more than $19 billion was requested by states, local governments and transit agencies through its economic recovery program; only 3 percent of requests were approved.

The grant announcement is the second bit of good news for Waterloo and its train culture. Last month, it rededicated its late-1800s Waterloo Depot after an inside-and-out renovation.

The building was moved in the early 1980s, when it was about 100 years old, by residents who objected to a plan to tear it down by the railroad company that owned the property. The building was mostly authentic except for an end that had been struck by a derailed train in 1957.

Nodine, Waterloo town manager, said the depot, which is owned by the town, currently can be rented out for events. But it would be made available for Amtrak passengers as a climate-controlled waiting area with handicapped-accessible restrooms, preferable to idling cars on the gravel lots by the track, the current method passengers often use to keep warm or cool.

Amtrak doesn’t have a timeline for the project; Nodine said an environmental study would have to be done, in addition to gaining approval from Norfolk Southern Railroad, which owns the tracks.

But he’s cautiously optimistic the project will move forward; just as the depot renovation chugged along for years, overcoming obstacles to raise money and satisfy the freight line and historic preservationists.

“We overcame each one of those in time, and that’s what it takes,” he said.

aturner@jg.net

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