Saturday, October 17, 2015


The Hoosier State. Note the full-length dome car behind the locomotive. 
Photo courtesy Indiana Dept. of Transportation.
Quite some time has passed since I last posted a piece about riding a train. That was because I hadn't ridden any new trains in quite some time. Last week I did at last: I took the Hoosier State between Chicago and Lafayette, Indiana, just for the hell of it.

The Hoosier State is an unusual train for Amtrak. Its locomotives and cars, done up in attractive orange-and-brown livery reminiscent of the old Illinois Central during its heyday, are owned by Iowa Pacific Holdings, an outfit best known for luxury cars coupled to Amtrak trains and booked for luxury prices. The train, subsidized by the state of Indiana, runs four days a week 196 miles between Chicago and Indianapolis on the days that Amtrak's three-day-a-week long-distance Cardinal from Chicago to New York doesn't run.

Amtrak provides engineers and conductors as well as the tickets, but the service crew is from Iowa Pacific. (Tickets on the Hoosier State, by the way, cost no more than they do on the Cardinal.)

And so I decided to take a joyride just to see what the Hoosier State was like, stopping at Lafayette at 10 p.m. and getting back on the return trip at 7:36 a.m. rather than detraining at Indianapolis at near midnight and reboarding at 6 a.m. Each journey ran about 3 1/2 hours.

Last week was the first week for business-class passengers, who are accommodated on the second level of a beautifully restored full-length two-story dome car from the 1950s. They're served free drinks (alcoholic, too) and meals there while coach riders can buy dinners and breakfasts in the dining area on the first level. The coaches, by the way, are also nicely refurbished former long-distance cars from the 1960s, and the seats are roomy and the legroom ample.

Business class inside the full-length dome car.
Servers wear old-fashioned white jackets.
The service, from a quintet of veterans and eager young attendants, was pleasant and efficient. While the cuisine is hardly gourmet, it's prepared fresh on the train, is served in china dishes on white tablecloths and is acceptably tasty. The bud vases on the tables contain real flowers. There's free wi-fi, too. No complaints there, none at all.

Real roses in the bud vases on the tables, something we no longer see in Amtrak dining cars.
There were just two downsides to the trip. One is that I had to spend two nights and a day in Lafayette because the return trip to Chicago skipped a day, and Lafayette, while a honest and sturdy Indiana town full of honest and sturdy Indianans, is not the Athens of the Midwest. There isn't much for a city boy to see except the Tippecanoe County Courthouse, a Victorian mishmash of six different architectural styles. It is so homely that it grows on you, and I spent a couple of hours photographing it from every angle.

The endearingly ugly Tippecanoe County Courthouse.
The other drawback is that rural northwestern Indiana offers no spectacular views from the train, unless one is a connoisseur of farmland. It didn't matter on the nighttime trip down, but on the way back the morning sun rose mainly on cows and cornstalks. (I have the same complaint about Illinois and Iowa.)

It's still dark when the northbound Hoosier State arrives in Lafayette. The consist: GP40H locomotive, two coaches, full-length dome car, coach, another GP40H.
It's hard to understand why a full-length dome car, most suitable for gorgeous mountain scenery, is employed on this boring run. Maybe it's because Iowa Pacific has one and might as well use it. That is fortunate for people who have to go to Indianapolis, especially those who can swing business class.

I'm glad I took this bucket-list trip. I'm also glad I don't have to take it again.

(Later. From time to time Amtrak safety inspectors find something wrong with an Iowa Pacific locomotive, and there apparently are no replacements, so the Hoosier State becomes a bus to Indianapolis. If you'd rather avoid "bustitution," call Amtrak the day of the trip to make sure the actual train is running.)

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