Billion-dollar plan for rail service from Ohio to Chicago could be in place by 2026
By Tim Zorn | Chicago Tribune
The dream of bringing back passenger rail service between Fort Wayne and Chicago, with stops in Valparaiso and Gary, may be closing in on reality.
Consultants hired by a Fort Wayne-based citizens group said a preliminary analysis shows Amtrak service between Lima, Ohio, and Chicago could start between 2026 and 2030 and could carry between 387,000 and 765,000 passengers a year by 2035.
The variation would depend on the train’s speed (79 or 101 mph) and the number of daily round trips (2 or 4), officials said.
Gary and Valparaiso would be “a strong generator of ridership” in that corridor, said Caron Kloser, an HNTB Corp. associate vice president.
But the new train service wouldn’t try to compete with the South Shore Line’s trains or Valparaiso’s ChicaGo Dash bus service to carry daily commuters. The train would be more suited for weekly or bi-weekly business travelers, said Randy Wade, an HNTB associate vice president.
Kloser and Wade spoke at a public meeting Thursday in Valparaiso, outlining a study to prepare for seeking a Federal Railroad Administration grant for a more in-depth analysis of the route. About a dozen people attended, but none appeared to be city officials from Valparaiso or Gary.
Cities with proposed stops along the route, except for cash-strapped Gary, have contributed to HNTB’s preliminary study. Along with Gary, Valparaiso, Fort Wayne and Lima, other stops would be in Plymouth and Warsaw.
Although the preliminary study focused on the route between Lima and Gary, Kloser said a previous study examined potential passenger rail connections between Chicago and Northwest Indiana, including Chicago to Gary.
Kloser said the proposed route is straighter and has less freight traffic than the alternatives. Improving the route for passenger service would also benefit freight traffic, she added
The estimated capital costs are about $898 million for 79-mph service and $1.2 billion for 101 mph. Those cost estimates, Kloser said, include professional services, as well as contingencies for unexpected costs.
At 79 mph, a one-way trip between Lima and Chicago would take about 3½ hours. At 101, it would be 2½. A trip from Valparaiso to Chicago would take about 52 minutes at the lower speed, Wade said.
Those times would be “very competitive” with car travel, Kloser said, noting the frequently clogged Chicago interstates.
Communities would take the lead in choosing their station locations and designs. Gary’s would be at Gary-Chicago International Airport.
The effort to revive the Amtrak service that had stops in Gary, Valparaiso and Fort Wayne – and ran on the former Pennsylvania Railroad line through the region -- was organized by the Northern Indiana Passenger Rail Association, based in Fort Wayne.
Amtrak ended its commuter service between Valparaiso and Chicago, with stops in Gary and Hammond/Whiting, in 1991.
Citizens in Fort Wayne and Lima began organizing soon after Amtrak canceled the service to their cities in 1990. .
Fred Lanahan, a former NIPRA chairman, said he had moved back to Fort Wayne, in part because it had train service to Chicago, just as Amtrak canceled the service.
Citizens in Fort Wayne and Lima began organizing soon afterward to bring the trains back.
The former train station in Fort Wayne has been restored, Lanahan said. The city’s bus service hub and a Greyhound station are across the street.
“We need to convince politicians that there needs to be a balance in transportation,” he said, contending that the cost of building a mile of interstate highway is higher than building a mile of new railroad.