Ticket to Ride

hoosier state train is on track for a round-trip jaunt to chicago

By CJ Woodring

»Leisurely drives through the countryside are a thing of the past in a major portion of 21st century America. As for stress-free interstate commutes via highways or skyways: Forget about it.

Which is why an increasing number of Indianapolis residents now consider a third option when planning a business or pleasure trip to Chicago.

Envision a return to an era when transportation was relaxed and stress-free. When passengers enjoyed breakfast, lunch or dinner and imbibed their favorite libations, all while comfortably ensconced in plush seats and enjoying the view through large picture windows.

If you’re thinking “train,” you’re on the right track. And an excursion on the Hoosier State Train is … well … worth the trip.

Readers familiar with Amtrak’s Hoosier State Train, which alternates with the Cardinal in providing daily northbound and southbound service between Naptown and the Windy City, may have questioned its future existence, says Will Wingfield, communications spokesman for the Indiana Department of Transportation.

“In 2008, when the government defunded passenger rail routes shorter than 750 miles, a lot of people wondered whether or not the Hoosier State Train would continue. And, if so, for how long? It’s not only continued,” he says, “there have actually been improvements that include on-time performance. And in addition to beautifully refurbished heritage train cars, there are now onboard amenities such as free Wi-Fi, food and beverage service, and business class seating.”

The most striking feature of the train, he says, is the observation car, available only to business class passengers. “We’re most proud of the dome lounge, which is really unique with its panoramic curved glass windows. Passengers have spacious table seating and a great view of the surroundings,” he says, adding that one business car is handicapped accessible.

The grass-roots initiative to subsidize the run was launched in 2015 as a public-private partnership between INDOT, Iowa Pacific Holdings, Amtrak and the cities of Crawfordsville, Lafayette and Rensselaer.

“We’re very pleased to be INDOT’s partner in offering this service,” says Marc Magliari, Amtrak’s Chicago-based regional media relations manager. “We’d like it to be successful and along the lines of what we’re doing in other Midwestern states: growing and giving travelers more options to access other cities.”

Riding the Rails

The Hoosier State Train offers round-trip service Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. It also operates southbound Monday evening and northbound Tuesday morning.

Northbound passengers board at 6 a.m. at the Indianapolis Amtrak station, 350 S. Illinois St., and are whisked along the five-hour, 196-mile journey, with stops at Crawfordsville, Lafayette, Rensselaer and Dyer. Passengers can sit back and relax in refurbished, early 1920s railway cars and view parts of the heartland unseen by motorists driving state and federal highways.

“It’s not the same scenery you’d see on I-65, and it’s a good way to see a different portion of Indiana,” says Wingfield, citing Jamestown, Romney, Monon and Lowell among small towns through which the route passes.

Beverages and meals, which include weekly specials, are included in business class ticket fares and are available for purchase in coach class.

Travelers arrive shortly after 10 a.m. at Chicago’s Union Station, refreshed and ready to enjoy their stay, whether for a day of business or leisure, a weekend getaway or fun-filled vacation.

“Even though the trip takes five hours, it’s an improvement over driving,” Wingfield says, noting travelers don’t have to make stops for food and restroom breaks, which can be a time-consuming factor, especially when traveling with youngsters. In addition, the train operates year-round and in all weather conditions, eliminating sometimes harrowing and dangerous winter road trips.

Stay and play

Rail travel appeals to all ages, attracting students, families and seniors. For older travelers, it may be a return to memories of yesteryear, when air travel was expensive and the majority of people traveled by rail. First-time riders may find it a unique adventure and, depending upon their age, the thrill of a lifetime.

Chicago has long been the destination of choice for travelers who consider it their kind of town. With so much to see and do, the ultimate challenge might well be in planning an itinerary.

Consider a shopping spree at the Magnificent Mile (themagnificentmile.com). Root for your favorite team (dreamtown.com/chicago-guide/sports.html). Explore the Shedd Aquarium (sheddaquarium.org), Adler Planetarium (adlerplanetarium.org) or one of Chi-town’s marvelous museums (timeout.com/chicago/attractions/10-best-chicago-museums-top-institutions-to-visit-in-chicago).

Take a walk on the historic Navy Pier (navypier.com). Indulge in a food tour (chicagotraveler.com) in the city renowned for creative cuisine that extends far beyond its namesake hot dog and deep-dish pizza. Or experience nightlife in the toddlin’ town (choosechicago.com/things-to-do/nightlife) at venues that include the House of Blues (houseofblues.com/chicago).

Whatever your destination, Chicago’s excellent mass transportation system will get you there. And back.

Return boarding is at 5:45 p.m., with arrival in Indianapolis just before midnight. To enhance your experience, consider a stay at the downtown Crowne Plaza Historic Union Station (downtownindianapolishotel.com), an easy two-minute walk from the station.

Inside the historic train station, you can spend the night in one of 13 vintage railway cars, each boasting two guest rooms. Themed, luxuriously appointed Pullman sleepers guarantee you won’t feel like one of the Boxcar Children.

While there, take time to view the Grand Hall and its stunning stained-glass windows and ceiling.

Wingfield says response has been very positive to the Hoosier State Train, one of the highest-rated on the Amtrak system. And he invites readers to climb aboard.

“You can save yourself time behind the wheel, plus the cost of parking in Chicago, and take advantage of all the onboard improvements. So whether you’re looking for a shopping trip or a business trip, I’d absolutely encourage you to try this.”

Amtrak is offering a bicentennial discount of 15 percent off regular full adult fare until Dec. 28. Up to two children (ages 2 to 12) may accompany each adult at half fare. The discount (Code V431) is valid for travel through Dec. 31, with a requisite minimum three-day advance reservation. Early booking is recommended.

Visit amtrak.com to download a schedule and menus and to reserve tickets.