The Hoosier Valley Railroad Museum’s excursions to LaCrosse will likely remain suspended for at least the next few months. The North Judson Town Council voted Thursday to extend an agreement with the Chesapeake and Indiana Railroad, the operator of the line.
Town Attorney Rachel Arndt says the original operating agreement was set to expire in December. It had been extended until this month to give the town a chance to accept proposals for a lease of the line, but Arndt says the process has taken longer than expected, “Because of some delays that were out of our hands, really, we’re waiting for some information so that we can publish the RFP, we’ve had to agree to another extension, and we’re doing that for a couple reasons: One, so that we can guarantee some passenger excursions on the line. And the other reason is so that we can guarantee continued payments of revenue shares to the town which funnels into a maintenance fund for the railroad.” The extension approved Thursday gives the town until August 15 to find a firm to lease the railroad.
However, the Hoosier Valley Railroad Museum has been opposing the extended agreement, due to its restrictions on the museum’s passenger trips to LaCrosse. While the excursions to English Lake are allowed to continue, the museum is only allowed to run two trains to LaCrosse during the term of the extended agreement. Even then, the museum would have to make a request at least 30 days in advance and would require the approval of both the Town of North Judson and the Chesapeake and Indiana Railroad.
That may be a bit of a challenge. Museum officials say that the Chesapeake and Indiana has decided to store rail cars on the line in LaCrosse, further complicating issues. Meanwhile, the operator says it will no longer maintain the segment of track between English Lake and North Judson, leaving that responsibility up to the town for now.
Arndt says there are a few reasons why the town agreed to restrict the museum’s trips to LaCrosse, “The biggest one was that we were having some insurance concerns come up that we tried to iron out and those are about ironed out, but that was one of the requests that the other parties made to us as a point of settlement to get this extension done, and the town really just had to balance the downside of doing that with the benefit of getting the continued revenue shares.”
Arndt and members of the North Judson Town Council said if the town didn’t agree to the terms of the extension, the operating agreement would expire. That would mean control of the railroad would pass to the Surface Transportation Board, leaving the town with no way to ensure that the museum’s excursions could continue.
Museum officials argued that the operation of the excursion trains should already be protected, as one of the stipulations of the grant funding provided by the Indiana Department of Transportation in 2004 to allow the town to buy the line. The terms of the grant imply that freight traffic may not interfere with the museum or its excursions, but museum officials say these conditions are currently being ignored.
However, Arndt says that provision may not be enforceable due to conflicts with federal law, and a legal discussion with INDOT continues. As for the terms of the new extension of the operating agreement, Arndt says INDOT approves.
The LaCrosse trips are considered a major tourist draw for the museum, and the uncertainty of the situation has caused significant challenges for both the museum and other groups. For example, the LaCrosse Public Library regularly partners with the museum for programs and special events there. Doug Kosloske, vice president of the Hoosier Valley Railroad Museum Board of Directors, says he just wants a solution that benefits everyone. “We’re very concerned when we start losing the ability to do things like go to LaCrosse,” he says. “Is it going to cut at our income? Yes. Is it going to kill us? Well, figure out a way to do it like we always have. But the point is, we’d like to resolve this and get back to where we all can play together nicely. People can make money running cars. People can make money shipping grain. People can make money by owning a railroad. We don’t make money. We just are trying to be the caretakers of history.”
Arndt says once a lease is finally signed, the museum may see some additional protections, “The long-term goal of the town is to give more teeth to any agreement that we have. And so what I’d like to see is some very specifically outlined passenger excursion details, so they get to do x amount of trips per month, if we’re going to do any expansion in services, adding provisions in for those, so that’s the plan.”
Town officials say they’ve already heard from five firms interested in leasing the line.