The way to Indianapolis

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, February 07, 2017

I love riding steam excursions as much as the next person, not to mention tourist lines and private cars. And I wouldn’t mind joining one of those high-end “photo-freight” charters one of these days, as soon as I save enough money.

But I also have a hang-up about authenticity, probably a lingering malady from journalism school, or just plain obstinance. None of these operations, it seems to me, is authentic in the strictest sense of the word. All of them are replications of some aspect or vintage of real railroading, subject to the interpretations of the operator or sponsor. Loads of fun, yes. Real? Well, no.

Which made this week’s short trip aboard the Hoosier State passenger train, Amtrak Nos. 850 and 851, so rewarding. Classic Trains Editor Rob McGonigal and I were sitting in a 1950s-era train, enjoying the sights and sounds of the streamliner era, riding a train functioning as an actual common carrier. The passengers weren’t railfans, they were regular folks, using the train for the prosaic purpose of getting from, say, Dyer to Crawfordsville. The very definition of “authentic,” I’d say.

The Iowa Pacific locomotive heading the southbound Hoosier State looks ahead into the mist during the stop at Lafayette, Ind., on February 6, a few weeks before the train was due to revert to Amtrak equipment. Kevin P. Keefe photo
The Hoosier State is the Chicago–Indianapolis service that Iowa Pacific has been running since August 2015 under contract with Amtrak and the state of Indiana, augmenting the triweekly Chicago–Washington, D.C., Cardinal when the latter doesn’t run. Sad to say, Iowa Pacific has asked to be let out of the contract, and the train is scheduled to revert to Amtrak equipment as of March 1. That was reason enough to buy tickets for Indy.

The route, over CSX trackage, holds a lot of appeal for this Midwesterner. In the Amtrak era, Indianapolis–Chicago has never been a very robust market, but I’ve always felt there is something uniquely flavorful about riding a train that wanders across some of the densest railroading in Chicago only to achieve the pastoral joys of the old Monon.

And a joy it was, even on a dark winter night. Our consist was worth the price of admission: two Budd-built coaches, of Santa Fe and Southern Pacific heritage, plus a former Santa Fe full-length dome, all done up in Iowa Pacific’s version of Illinois Central brown and orange. Even our locomotive, a former NJ Transit GP40 built for New York Central in 1967, seemed retro enough.

Not long out of Chicago we enjoyed an excellent dinner in the lower dining lounge of the dome, set aside for regular coach passengers. I can tell you that the chicken Kiev, adorned with a huge baked potato and perfectly prepared broccoli, was terrific, unlike anything I’ve had on Amtrak for years.

Later that evening, rolling east on the old Peoria & Eastern from Crawfordsville, I fell into a bit of a 1960s trance, reveling in the darkened interior of the coach with its high ceiling and old-style drop-down footrests. Ahead of us, we could hear the banging of the diaphragms in the vestibule as we rolled over stretches of jointed rail. “I remember this!” I thought to myself.

I also reflected a bit on the route itself, which has an idiosyncratic history. Neglected over the past 40 years, Indianapolis–Chicago has a notable heritage.

I consulted my go-to Hoosier expert, author William Benning Stewart, for a refresher. He reminded me that, in the classic era, three major players vied for the Chicago–Indianapolis passenger business.

NYC was the biggest player in the Chicago–Indianapolis market, and for years its top train on the route was the James Whitcomb Riley. Here the northbound Riley accelerates away from Lafayette behind a J-1 Hudson in 1950. Hal Lewis photo
Top honors must go to the New York Central with its service over the old Indiana Division of subsidiary Big Four. Way back in 1916, NYC fielded an astounding 17 trains on this route each day, including the through Chicago–Florida Royal Palm. For many years the Big Four’s premier Chicago–Indianapolis–Cincinnati train was the Sycamore, after Indiana’s state tree.

Then came the train that really made its mark: the James Whitcomb Riley, named for Indiana’s beloved poet laureate. The first edition of this “Deluxe All-Coach Streamliner” appeared in 1941, pulled initially by a K-class 4-6-2 wearing a not altogether flattering shroud. More fame came in 1948 with the new all-stainless-steel Riley, commanded by J-class Hudsons and featuring Budd tavern-lounge-observation cars Nos. 48–51.

But the old Monon was a player, too, and enjoyed a loyal clientele, says Stewart, especially aboard The Hoosier out of Indianapolis. Known as the revered “Five O’Clock Monon,” it was notable early in the 20th century for its dining car cuisine and Barney & Smith parlor-library-observation cars. Indiana folks had an enduring love affair with the Monon’s modest trains, something legendary President John W. Barriger III recognized when he re-equipped the fleet in 1947.

Then there was the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad, which earlier in the century ran off-the-shelf trains to Indianapolis: nothing special, just straightforward Pennsy varnish, albeit punctuated with parlor cars. Things improved with the prewar introduction of the streamlined Chicago–Florida South Wind, originally with a generally fixed consist and a streamlined K4 4-6-2 on the point.  By the Sixties, though, the PRR was down to two trains: the daylight South Wind, often with run-through Atlantic Coast Line E units, and the overnight Kentuckian, with heavyweight 12-1 Pullmans but no dining service.

As I said, it’s an idiosyncratic heritage, but memorable just the same. Given that context, today’s apparently short-lived Hoosier State fits right in.

Back to our trip: Despite only a few hours of sleep, we continued to enjoy the train the next morning as we headed back to Chicago, this time in business class, which put us upstairs in that Santa Fe dome for a first-class railroad breakfast. I don’t know which I enjoyed more, the perfect eggs and bacon or the china. Either way, the service was a credit to the Iowa Pacific staff.

Our arrival in Chicago was a melancholy affair, drawn out by the leisurely, convoluted approach through the south suburbs. The Iowa Pacific on-board service personnel let their hair down a bit to express some sadness over the impending switch to Amtrak staff and equipment, but they were models of professionalism.

I certainly empathize with them. Theirs has been a colorful jewel in a mostly monochromatic world of contemporary American passenger railroading. And it’s utterly authentic. History will look back kindly on the Hoosier State.

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