All aboard: Passengers board the National Limited at the Terre Haute railroad depot in 1978 in this photograph from the Terre Haute Spectator. The National Limited, an Amtrak line between New York and Kansas City, made its last stop in Terre Haute a year later, ending passenger rail service to this city. 
Courtesy Vigo County Public Library Special Collections
All aboard: Passengers board the National Limited at the Terre Haute railroad depot in 1978 in this photograph from the Terre Haute Spectator. The National Limited, an Amtrak line between New York and Kansas City, made its last stop in Terre Haute a year later, ending passenger rail service to this city. Courtesy Vigo County Public Library Special Collections
Millions of Americans feel the travel itch every Memorial Day weekend.

Summer lies ahead. The grind of jobs, school and chores nudges people to clear a spot on their calendars and take off.

That urge is even more intense in 2021. After 15 months of pandemic isolation, parts of the country are reopening, luring folks to get outta Dodge and hit the open road to, well, anywhere. (Some areas are reopening less carefully than others, so mask up or get vaccinated. COVID-19 hasn’t disappeared.)

Thirty-seven million Americans will venture away from home this weekend, the traditional kickoff to the summer driving season, according to AAA. Most will travel by automobile.

Imagine if Hauteans could ride a passenger train west to St. Louis or north to Chicago.

Such an option once existed, generations ago. The old National Limited made its final stop in Terre Haute on Oct. 1, 1979, as the last passenger train to service the city.

Forty-two years later, President “Amtrak Joe” Biden’s $1.7-trillion American Jobs Plan would include an $80-billion investment to repair, upgrade and modernize Amtrak — the quasi-public and lone national passenger rail line. As Biden’s proposal gets battered back and forth in the no-middle-ground Congress, maps showing new or improved Amtrak routes have circulated through news reports. None show an east-west line connecting Indianapolis to St. Louis, or a north-south route linking Evansville to Chicago. Either would bisect Terre Haute, theoretically, given its location and existing track system.

Instead, the proposed routes running south from Chicago lead to Champaign and Carbondale in Illinois; to Indianapolis and Louisville; and east through northern Indiana to Cleveland and the East Coast. Southern Indiana’s 8th and 9th congressional districts currently lack Amtrak service.

Still, it’s not impossible for St. Louis-to-Indianapolis or Chicago-to-Evansville lines to become part of the plan. It would require state and local leaders to push for passenger rail service through their communities.

“You’ve got to find those champions and rally people to have those grassroots efforts,” said Richard Bose, a St. Louis-based electrical engineer and senior editor of NEXTSTL, an urbanist blog. “This is the time to try, or we’re going to miss out.”

Of course, the entire proposal faces hurdles, regardless of the route locations envisioned by proponents. Republicans in the U.S. Senate countered Biden’s plan with a leaner $928-billion proposal, with $257 billion in total new spending and $22 billion for passenger and freight rail, according to NPR.

“There will be a back and forth,” said Madi Butler, communications manager for the Rail Passengers Association in Washington, D.C. “There will be some who want to trim it. There will be some who want to make it bigger.”

Biden is just four months into his presidency, after all. “There’s still a lot of kinks to work out” in the American Jobs Plan, Butler said.

College towns such as Terre Haute feature rail-friendly demographics. Millennials and younger age groups are more willing to ride public transportation, Butler said. A 2016 survey by the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission found that more than half of students, faculty and staff at 30 colleges in nine Midwest states, including Indiana, would use Amtrak if more frequent service was available.

Bose at NEXTSTL pitched an idea in January of a twice-daily St. Louis-to-Indianapolis line — the “Brickyard Zephyr” or the “Gateway City Express” — with Illinois stops in Collinsville, Highland, Vandalia and Effingham, then Indiana stops in Terre Haute, Greencastle, Indianapolis International Airport and downtown Indy. He estimated its cost at $236 million.

Amtrak’s prospective map issued in April directly connected St. Louis to Kansas City, Chicago and Dallas, but nowhere else. That disappointed Bose.

“I just think it’s ridiculous to have air travel for St. Louis to Indianapolis when they’re so close,” he said, “when you could have rail service and include cities along the way, like Terre Haute.”

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the economic impact of Amtrak service to a city, said Butler at the Rail Passengers Association. Cuts in Amtrak service through the pandemic created lost revenue for stop cities totaling $2.3 billion — an economic “bomb on flyover country,” Butler said. Ridership plummeted from 32 million in 2019 to 16.8 million last year.

In a “normal” non-pandemic time, passenger rail service increases jobs, mobility for the aging population, tourism and real estate development, the Rail Passengers stated last October. It also provides a more environmentally efficient transportation mode, Butler said. A 700-plus-mile Amtrak trip is 34% more environmentally efficient than air travel, and 53% better than travel by SUVs or trucks, according to the association. Also, Biden proposes developing more electrified rail lines.

Plans driven by the president and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, the former South Bend mayor and presidential candidate, have skeptics.

Last fall, the nonpartisan Reason Foundation, a public policy research organization, assessed an earlier passenger rail expansion effort — the intercity passenger rail grant program undertaken by President Obama’s administration. “Very little of what was hoped for actually panned out,” said Robert Poole, the foundation’s director of transportation policy.

Though he’s a “rail fan and model railroader,” Poole also doesn’t see the benefits of Biden’s new passenger rail proposal.

“I cannot see the bang for the buck in intercity passenger rail, with ample bus, car and airline alternatives available to travelers at lower cost,” Poole said by email Monday. He also said the “environmental justification is weak.”

Biden clearly believes in his plan, calling it “economical” and “environmentally, a lifesaver” during a cross-country rail trip last month, marking Amtrak’s 50th anniversary. He knows rail travel, having logged thousands of nightly Amtrak rides home from Washington to Delaware through his 36 years in the Senate.

Given the proposal’s chances of passage, in some form through Congress, Terre Haute and west-central Indiana should be prepared to lobby for inclusion on a route. The city’s multimodal transportation facility on Cherry Street is a few blocks away from existing north-south and east-west freight rail lines, and could serve as a station, if a park-and-ride shuttle service was developed.

In the meantime, Terre Haute needs more overpasses, with or without passenger trains passing through.
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