By Sadie Hunter
Last month, government officials from Hamilton County, the City of Noblesville and the City of Fishers announced plans for a “rail to trail” overhaul of the Nickel Plate Rail Line through both communities, from 96th Street in Fishers north to Pleasant Street in Noblesville, for a paved walking and biking trail that would replace the railroad completely.
In an effort to preserve the historic imprint of the rail line, which is more than 150 years old, community members and the board of the Indiana Transportation Museum, which operates the line, are working together on a plan that will support the rail line and proposed trail.
“The (Indiana Transportation Museum) has been operating the Nickel Plate Rail Line since 1991,” said Michelle Yerkeson, Indiana Transportation Museum board member since 2003 and volunteer since 2000. “In that time, we have carried probably millions of people to the state fair through Polar Bear Express, weekend excursions, the pumpkin train, Fathers Day, Mothers Day (and) Strawberry Festival. We have a wide range of events. In our last year of operation, which was 2015, we carried approximately 50,000 people, and 11,000 of those people were just on Polar Bear Express.”
Despite operating the line, the transportation museum does not own it. The Hoosier Heritage Port Authority, a conglomerate of appointed officials from Hamilton County, Noblesville and Fishers governments, owns it.
In March 2016, the HHPA banned the ITM from using the tracks after seven former ITM volunteers wrote a letter alleging the museum’s board of making questionable financial decisions and failing to maintain records, along with improper training and safety precautions. The HHPA has not lifted its ban on ITM’s operation of trains on its tracks, which resulted in all of the ITM’s popular events to be cancelled.
“Before the trail was announced, the (HHPA) had announced they were going to put the operation of this rail line out for what is called an RFP, a request for proposal, and the ITM would of course be part of that,” Yerkeson said. “However, whether it’s us or another group that comes in to operate, if the tracks are gone, that opportunity is also gone.”
Hamilton County Commissioner Christine Altman said at the Feb. 28 announcement of the Nickel Plate Trail that the corridor’s preservation is still intact.
“Transportation comes in many forms, and every commute starts with walking, no matter where you are,” she said. “We still think this is a valuable corridor for mass transit, but at this time, the local communities don’t have local dollars to make that happen. We think the corridor will continue to grow in value. We are planning to do what we can to preserve this corridor for future generations so they can use their best decisions to make this a mode of transportation that makes sense at that time.”
“Ms. Altman is referring to a process called railbanking, I believe,” Yerkeson said in response. “Railbanking is a process where they preserve the right of way, the actual piece of ground, but they take the track out. In this case, they would use it as a trail. Then, the idea is if it’s ever needed as a rail line again, you can put the rail back in, but that never happens. I’ve done some research, and I cannot find any location where track that is in a parallel use, as ours is, has been put back in. There have been examples where they’ve put short spur lines back in, but with 40 miles of track, it hasn’t happened.
“The train and the trail can work together, and there are lots of communities all over the country where they run parallel with each other, and it works really well. The right of way is already there. The land, in most instances, is already there. The infrastructure is in place. So we’re thinking, why can we not have the best of both worlds?”
In recent years, the rail line has been a tourist attraction, but as recently as the 1990s the Nickel Plate was used to transport goods when cars would transport coal to power plants.
“This railroad has been here since the 1850s, and for some perspective, that’s before the Civil War,” Yerkeson said. “Hamilton County grew up around the railroad. Fishers used to be called Fishers Station, so that community, and Noblesville, too, really formed around this rail line.”
A timeline and funding for the implementation of the trail hasn’t been determined. On the same day of the announcement of the trail, the ITM released a statement encouraging people to contact Hamilton County commissioners Christine Altman, Steve Dillinger and Mark Heirbrant and Fishers Mayor Scott Fadness, Noblesville Mayor John Ditslear and respective county and city councilors.
A petition in favor of the plan for both the rail and trail to coexist also has been formed at change.org, which can be found by visiting bit.ly/2mSNBRM.
PUBLIC MEETINGS & RALLIES
Save the Nickel Plate Rallies
The Indiana Transportation Museum has organized two “Save the Nickel Plate” rallies to occur just prior to government listening sessions on the proposed Nickel Plate Trail at 5:30 p.m. March 21 at the Nickel Plate Amphitheatre in downtown Fishers and at 5:30 p.m. March 23 outdoor at the east side of city hall, 16 S. 10th St. Those who plan to attend are encouraged to wear royal blue clothing.
Nickel Plate Trail listening sessions
The City of Fishers and City of Noblesville will each have listening sessions from 6 to 8 p.m. The Fishers session is March 21 at Fishers City Hall, 1 Municipal Dr., Fishers, and Noblesville’s is March 23 at Noblesville City Hall, 16 S. 10th St., Noblesville. Representatives from each city will be in attendance at each.