Before Paul Kroeger got on the final trip of the Hoosier State line into Chicago on June 30, he staked out a spot around the Rensselaer depot where he, like others, could put a penny on the rails.
"If you’re taking your kids on a train trip, that little souvenir is the best thing you’re going to give them," he said, holding up the flattened coin that he, like others, retrieved after the return trip.
The last run of the Hoosier State train had a lot of excitement about it.
"All along the route there were people waving at the train," said Kroeger.
At the Rensselaer and Dyer stations, parents brought their kids to see it.
"There were a number of people driving a car on the adjacent highway and videoing the train," he said.
"And on the train there were the crazy rail fan contingent — you know, people wearing engineer's hats and vests with railroad patches."
Some were still lobbying and handing out pamphlets to continue the line, which ended because Indiana no longer budgets $3 million a year for the four-day a week service.
Amtrak officials said two extra cars were added by private interests for this trip, and Kroeger took pictures of the inside of the old Pennsylvania Railroad observation car from the Broadway Limited, which once ran between Chicago and New York.
A group leased the car from its owner and were charging people $150 each way to ride in it.
"Only a crazy rail fan would do it," he said. "I was perfectly fine sitting in the lounge car at the table."
Amtrak gave out cookies, and everyone received a small paper banner with the “Last Run Amtrak Hoosier State, June 30, 2019,” commemorating the final journey.
"Even the conductors enjoyed the trip," he said.
Kroeger wanted to take the last trip the way some people want to be the first to see a new Star Wars film.
"I’m a rail fan. I used to work for Amtrak right out of college."
His enthusiasm comes from his childhood when Logansport was a hub for five lines of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
On the way home from grade school at St. Joseph’s, he’d stop by the three-story brick depot to watch the trains.
"The ticket clerk would give me time tables to feed my passion," he said.
"Logansport was busy. There were trains to spot, to watch – passenger trains, people going places," he said. "Logansport thrived with the railroads."
The town had 4,000 employees on the Pennsylvania line.
The Pennsylvania railroad also switched conductors here with men going back home to Chattanooga or Chicago from Logansport.
Passengers changed trains here also, visiting shops, restaurants and hotels during layovers.
Travelling salesmen also visited with their wares.
So Kroeger bought his ticket three weeks in advance of the last trip.
He wasn’t the only train aficionado, but even the day of, the Hoosier State wasn't full and tickets were available.
In his opinion, it isn't just waning interest in trains that killed the route.
Autos can make the trip faster, and the Megabus line makes the trip from Indianapolis to Chicago in three hours and 15 minutes.
"The Hoosier State took five hours to go from Indy to Chicago — when it was on time, which was a rarity," said Kroeger.
"It was frequently late because of yard congestion," typically from freight trains and usually in Chicago, he said.
On the last trip into Chicago, the train was 30 minutes late because of a disabled train, although not on the way back.
“Ironically, the final run on the Hoosier State was five minutes early to into Rensselaer and 20 minutes early into Indianapolis. If they could’ve maintained that kind of schedule, maybe it stood a chance,” Kroeger said.
Even 59 years ago, going from Indianapolis to Chicago by rail was four hours and five minutes, he said, reading from a three-inch thick 1960 schedule of all the rail lines in the country.
"Unless you’re a die-hard rail fan, it really isn’t a competitive product. People just want to get from Indy to Chicago. They don't really care about lollygagging an additional hour and 45 minutes — when the train is on time," he said.
"You can understand why the state of Indiana would pull the funding of a train that has lost practically 20 percent of its ridership in five years — and (was) rarely on time," Kroeger said.
Amtrak Spokesman Marc Magliari that Indiana could’ve done more but didn’t follow the model of neighboring states like Illinois, Missouri and Michigan on similar routes they had a stake in.
Under a 2008 federal law, services such as the Hoosier State train — shorter than 750 miles — required support by the states they passed through, Magliari explained.
That would be the $3 million that Indiana decided against continuing to supply.
However, it wasn’t just about subsidizing the line.
“If you don’t market a route and you don’t work on it to be competitive, your ridership will stagnate,” Magliari said.
Amtrak officials were also saying that the route needed infrastructure improvements along the rails.
The Indiana Department of Transportation paid for a study that said the same things but took no action, he added.
Most of the Hoosier State’s business came out of Lafayette — near Purdue University — and wasn’t business people travelling between the cities.
Whether or not the Hoosier State can return depends on what CSX Railroad, which owns most of the lines that the train traveled on, put in more freight capabilities, he said.
Although trains may have disadvantages, Kroeger still prefers them in ways.
“The train at least gives you a place to get a drink, a sandwich, a place to sit, a table. You can buy alcohol,” he said.
“And you can walk around — easily. Go to the bathroom any time you want. And there’s just something magic about riding a train that a bus just can’t even…,” Kroeger said. "There’s something about riding a train."
“Nobody gets off a train saying, ‘boy, I hated that train’ unless it was late. And then you have good reason to say the train wasn’t worth the trip,” he said.
There’s also a social aspect, and he talked to many people on the last Hoosier State trip and took many photos.
“Generally by the time the train pulls into the station, the people don’t want to get off. They have made six new best friends that they will never see again,” he said. “I maintain that a 46-hour train trip is shorter than a six-hour flight. It just goes by quickly, and you’re not strapped to your seat.”
This isn’t the first time the Hoosier State has closed down in its 39-year history.
A daily Hoosier State route began on Oct. 1, 1980, thanks to Sen. Birch Bayh and a federal initiative, according to the timeline provided by Amtrak.
On April 27, 1986, Amtrak renamed the Hoosier State to the Cardinal, the name of the national train that runs from Chicago to New York on the days the Hoosier didn’t run.
The Hoosier State name returned Oct. 25, 1987, “when it resumed operation on a daily schedule different from that of the Cardinal,” the press release states.
The Hoosier State made a final trip Sept. 8, 1995, and returned to make runs three times a week when the Cardinal didn’t operate between Indianapolis and Chicago.
Amtrak resumed daily service between the two cities on Oct. 31, 1999, when the Hoosier State began operating four times a week.
Reach James D. Wolf Jr. at email@example.com or 574-732-5117