Preserving our Railroad Heritage

ITM is an unconventional museum

ITM MuseumUnlike most museums where you visit a building and walk through looking at exhibits, the Indiana Transportation Museum’s main “building” has always been the Nickel Plate railroad track.

Exhibits are the historic trains that visitors ride, like the Indiana State Fair Train and the Polar Bear Express. The Museum seeks to give its visitors the experience of public transportation in the 20th century, linking central Indiana destinations and cultural experiences.

An added benefit for Hamilton County is the museum’s role as a tourist attraction. In a 2015 survey, museum visitors reported directly spending over $678,000 with local businesses. 6 in 10 visitors live outside Hamilton County and 1 in 5 live outside the metro area or out of state.

Much of the museum’s work that isn’t readily visible is the historic preservation work volunteers do on the locomotives and rail cars in its collection. The work is done inside the buildings in Forest Park. Visitors can watch when the museum is open.


32,000 visitors

The museum’s collection includes diesel and electric engines, trolleys, streetcars, interurban cars, passenger cars and freight cars, all of which were in use during the 1930’s to 1950’s.

Arguably the most famous item in the museum’s collection is the Nickel Plate steam locomotive number 587 that is on the National Historic Register. The engine was built in 1918 by Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia. A detailed history of the 587, including a year-by-year account of the progress of its latest million-dollar restoration, can be found on its website at this address:

Another storied car lives in one of the museum’s buildings – The Florida East Coast Car #90, nicknamed The Flagler Car. On loan from the Hulman Family Foundation, it is exhibited on special occasions so visitors can enjoy its craftsmanship. The car was originally the private railroad car of Henry Flagler, a Florida developer, and was built in 1898. Tony Hulman, founder of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, gave the car to his wife as a gift in 1969.

The majority of the museum’s income is earned through the sale of train tickets, supplemented with grants and donations. It receives no operating support from taxpayers.

The museum’s board and its volunteers are local professionals. They are not so much railroad or history enthusiasts as people motivated to build a distinctive institution for Hamilton County and central Indiana.

The museum’s business model calls for recruiting an executive director, adding key paid staff and expanding to year-round operation. Up to a dozen part timers are hired for the busiest events each season. During the Fair Train and Christmas Polar Bear Express seasons, there can be as many as 200 unpaid volunteers working.

This staff serves about 32,000 visitors every year for various excursions running on the 37-mile track between Indianapolis and Tipton. Gross income for operations in 2015 was $705,000, board secretary Craig Presler said. Board President Jeff Kehler said it was their best revenue year ever and permitted the museum to retire outstanding debt, with money in the bank to start 2016. The museum also received a gift of more than $450,000 from the estate of ITM member Oliver B. Daugherty. The bequest was used to establish an endowment managed by the Central Indiana Community Foundation. 

Track Safety

Shortly after the stellar financial year ended, some members of the team responsible for rail operations publicly accused museum management of poor business practices in March 2016. Presler says the real issue was opposition to the board’s efforts to professionalize the institution.

We attempted to reach team members who raised the issue but were not successful.

“There is no truth at all to the allegations,” Presler said, “but the Port Authority took them at face value. They didn’t look into them before acting.”

The Hoosier Heritage Port Authority, the agency created to oversee the railroad by the owners - Hamilton County, Fishers and Noblesville – responded by suspending the ITM from using the tracks.

Board chair Jeff Kehler wrote a letter dated April 24 to the Hamilton County Commissioners refuting the allegations and the Port Authority’s response.

“It is unfortunate, and a disservice to the citizens of Hamilton County, that the HHPA leadership has chosen to attach credibility to the self‐serving and malicious opinions of certain individuals and to demonstrate so little interest in understanding the reality of the situation within ITM. The HHPA’s actions also show disrespect for the independent evaluation of the Federal Railroad Administration,” Kehler’s letter states. That evaluation cleared the Museum of any violation of federal rules.

Kehler’s letter stated the museum has worked closely with the FRA since the Fair Train program began in 1983 and has always received “safe” designations. Museum officials are keenly aware that Federal rules hold individuals as well as organizations personally liable for violations of rules.

One recent long-term maintenance study by an independent consultant to the Port Authority estimated needed repairs at $5 million. That number has been disputed by ITM officials and even Port Authority board member Glen Schwartz, who told an audience that estimate could be brought down to $55,000 if the trains ran at lower speeds. $1.5 million of the $5 million figure included installing a connection to the Norfolk Southern at Tipton – a desired but unnecessary item for railroad operations.

“The 2016 ITM budget called for spending $165,000 on the track from Fishers to the Fairgrounds in preparation for the State Fair.” Presler said. “Some of the income from Fair Train was then to be used on the track from Fishers to Noblesville so the Polar Bear Express could expand.

Request for Proposals

Museum officials were further confounded in February when officials from Fishers, Noblesville and Hamilton County jointly announced their plans to rip out the railroad and convert it to a recreational trail. That would leave the ITM permanently without its “exhibition space” and without its primary source of income – sales of train tickets.
Presler said there actually has been no official operating agreement between the museum and the Port Authority since 2006. He said when the 1996 to 2006 agreement expired, the Port Authority held off renewing because it looked likely the rail line might be used for mass transit. That didn’t happen.

With no agreement, Museum officials found it difficult to raise money. Presler says track materials are costly and have lifespans of 30 years or more. The museum wants the term of an agreement to match the lifespan of the improvements.

Rhonda Klopfenstein, executive director of the Port Authority, said, “The ITM has been operating under a policy of use, no risk.” She said the Port Authority’s responsibility is to preserve the Nickel Plate corridor as a single parcel for however the owners decide to use it.

On April 19, the agency issued a Request for Proposals for a new operator for either all or part of the Nickel Plate tracks. The proposals are due June 13. Presler says ITM will submit a proposal. A decision on who the operator will be and what it will do is expected by July or August.

By Susan Hoskins Miller