Fishers & Noblesville – Rail vs. Trail

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March 19, 2017 3:22 PM

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The Nickel Plate Rail Line, made most famous as the route used by the Indiana State Fair train for a very long time, is now the subject of a major debate.  The outcome will determine how that line will be utilized years into the future.

On one side of the debate are those in favor of preserving the rail line, which runs from Indianapolis all the way north to Tipton.  There are proposals to repair the track, which was determined to be unsafe last year, resulting in the cancellation of the annual Fair Train excursions from downtown Fishers to the Indiana State Fairgrounds during the 17-day event last August.

The amount of money needed to restore the track to the previous condition vary.  I have seen estimates as low as $1 million and as high as $6 million.  Keep in mind, those estimates would put the track in a condition allowing for the annual fair train and a few other uses by the Indiana Transportation Museum in Noblesville, such as the Santa Express and dinner train rides.

If the train track required more use, such as a recent proposal to provide weekend train rides between Hamilton County and downtown Indianapolis, it is likely the track would need even more renovation work.  No one has yet provided an estimate on what that would cost, but look for that to come soon.

There is also a proposal floating around to allow for the train track to be used and have a biking and hiking trail along the same line at the same time.  Proponents claim there would be no safety issues with trains sharing the same area as bikers and hikers, others are skeptical.

On the other side are those arguing that occasional use of the rail line would not justify the cost of repairing the track. A biking and hiking area, much like the Monon Trail running through Indianapolis and Carmel, has been proposed from 96th Street north through Fishers and Noblesville.  The mayors of Fishers and Noblesville, along with at least 2 of the 3 Hamilton County Commissioners, are behind the plan to spend $9.3 million to put such a Nickel Plate Trail together.

They assert that a Nickel Plate trail would be heavily used by local residents.  They also say the trail could lead to economic development, such as has been seen along the Monon Trail.

This is an issue that has torn me in two very different directions.  I loved the fair train.  My wife and I have done the dinner train excursions and loved them.  So a big part of me wants the train to stay.

But another part of me sees the benefit of a trail where local people can bike, jog or just walk.  We all need to be healthier, and such a trail would be another venue providing us all a chance to get some needed exercise.

One key development helped shape this trail proposal, at least in my view.  Fishers Mayor Scott Fadness had, at one time, been a very big proponent of mass transit.  The Nickel Plate Line was the best option for either light rail or some type of rapid transit bus operation connecting Fishers with whatever system emerged to connect the Indianapolis Metropolitan Area.

Mayor Fadness has been changing his transit tune in recent months.  He has clearly been listening to leaders in the tech industry, such as John McDonald.  The CEO of Clear Object, headquartered in Fishers, told IBJ reporter Lindsey Erdody and myself, in a recent podcast interview, that we won’t need cabs, buses or trains in the future.  You will be able to use your favorite tech device to order a driverless vehicle which will show you video entertainment containing commercials, to take you to and from your destination.

Bottom line, Scott Fadness is convinced technological advances will make our current mass transit system obsolete.  In my view, that has contributed to his support of using the Nickel Plate as a trail, not a rail line.

As this debate continues, do not underestimate the organizing ability of train preservation groups.  They are already planning to make their case at the debate continues.  On the other side, those advocating a trail are preparing their arguments as well.

Fishers City Attorney Chris Greisl tells me it will take months for a decision to be made on the future of the Nickel Plate Line.  Will it continue as a rail line or be transformed to a trail?

I find plenty of good arguments for both uses.  My plan is to listen carefully to this debate before making up my mind.

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