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Frank Gray

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Push to return rail service to city on track

If you’re younger than 30, you probably have no idea that you could once catch a train in downtown Fort Wayne and travel to places like Chicago.

That ended in 1992, when Amtrak moved its train station to Waterloo, about 30 miles north. According to City Councilman Geoff Paddock, the move happened because of a dispute over who would maintain a stretch of track in the northwest corner of the state.

Four years ago, an organization called the Northeast Indiana Passenger Rail Association sprang into existence with the goal of bringing rail service back to Fort Wayne, which, according to Paddock, is the largest city in the state without passenger rail service.

The organization hasn’t accomplished a lot in that time. Oh, it has held a couple of rallies that attracted a thousand people each, but there is still no rail service here. At Baker Street Station, the entrance to a tunnel that led to boarding platforms is hidden behind a wall at the station, and the tunnel is filled with debris.

The dream of being able to hop a train in Fort Wayne remains, though. Last week, Paddock, a board member of the NIRPA, announced the organization had raised $80,000 to hire a firm to produce a business plan and conduct a study that would show the economic value of having rail service here. The hope is that the study will be finished by the end of the year, in time to show the next governor.

Not everybody is a big fan of the concept of bringing passenger rail service back to Fort Wayne. We have cars and interstate highways and airports. Who’s going to take a train?

The biggest question, though, is who’s going to pay the whopping cost of restoring rail service here.

That’s where one learns that there are a lot of misconceptions.

There is a group called the Indiana High Speed Rail Association, and for years it has been pushing for what amount to bullet trains – superfast trains like those used in Europe and Japan. The price tag for a project like that is in the billions of dollars.

Paddock and other members of the NIPRA are also board members of the High Speed Rail Association, and that appears to be creating some confusion. The two organizations are different animals entirely.

The proposal being pushed by Paddock and the NIPRA is to bring cities together into a coalition and create passenger rail service that could connect Pittsburgh; Columbus and Lima, Ohio; Fort Wayne and possibly other cities in Indiana with Chicago.

Nobody’s asking for bullet trains. Paddock referred to a person who held up a sign at one of the rallies. It read, “Any train will do.”

It still wouldn’t be cheap. It would cost $3 million to $5 million a mile to upgrade tracks, install signals and perhaps build some overpasses, Paddock said. But that is still a fraction of the $20 million a mile that it cost to extend Interstate 69 to Evansville or the $11 million to $12 million per mile it cost to widen U.S. 24 between New Haven and the Ohio line.

The total cost for such a project might run in the $300 million to $500 million range, a lot of money, but certainly not the billions that high-speed rail lines would cost, and the tracks could be used by freight trains, too.

Where would the money come from? The Federal Railway Administration could provide some funding, but there’s not much available.

The whole federal budget for railroads is only a couple of billion dollars, so there isn’t a lot of money to throw around, and the federal government funds only 80 percent of rail projects.

If the state would allocate just 2 percent of its transportation budget for a biennium that could provide up to $70 million for a project like this, Paddock said.

Paddock hopes that when the study is complete, “it will put us on the radar of the Federal Railway Association to qualify for federal funds to make upgrades.”

It’s all still in the dream stage, though, but it’s not really a wild-eyed dream, Paddock says. If everything went like clockwork, though, it could become a reality in five years, he said. He notes, though, that he’s been hoping for a long time that something could be accomplished within five years.

I remember the disappointment when passenger rail service left the city in 1992. Even I was miffed. One would think the possibility of bringing it back would be a popular notion. The results of the $80,000 study will be the real deal-breaker.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter (@FrankGrayJG).

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