Midwest Amtrak ridership shows a mixed bag, but with mostly positive trends
Ridership on seven of nine state-supported Amtrak routes in the Midwest grew by leaps and bounds over the last 10 fiscal years, but has dropped during the last five — a situation that state officials attribute at least in part to construction projects that aim to increase ridership and improve travel times over the long term.
While total ridership on the region’s routes grew 42 percent from fiscal years 2006 to 2016 (up to a total of 2,705,848 passengers), it dropped 8 percent from FY 2011 to FY 2016. Corridor improvement projects got underway after 2011, when federal funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 began flowing to state departments of transportation.
However, ridership figures for October 2016, released just before Thanksgiving, show that shorter-term regional trend may be starting to reverse – the Midwest’s state-supported routes carried 224,043 passengers in October, an increase of more than three percent (7,115 passengers) over October 2015.
10-Year Ridership Trends
In 2006, Illinois more than doubled the frequency of its state-supported service, adding two new round trips on the Chicago-St. Louis route and one each on its Chicago-Carbondale and Chicago-Quincy services. Illinois saw the region’s greatest 10-year growth on state-supported routes:
• The Chicago-St. Louis corridor, which hosts the state-supported Lincoln Service trains and the long-
distance Texas Eagle (Chicago-San Antonio), jumped 109 percent;
• The Chicago-Carbondale corridor, host to the state-supported Illini/Saluki trains and the long distance City
of New Orleans (Chicago-Memphis-New Orleans) grew by 92 percent; and
• The Chicago-Quincy corridor, host to the state-supported Illinois Zephyr and Carl Sandburg trains plus
the long-distance Southwest Chief (Chicago-Los Angeles) and California Zephyr (Chicago-Denver-Emeryville,
Ca.), grew by 69 percent.
Most of the other Midwestern corridor passenger rail routes also saw significant ridership increases between 2006 and 2016:
• Michigan’s Blue Water service (Chicago-Port Huron) numbers rose by 48 percent;
• Indiana’s Hoosier State (Indianapolis to Chicago) ridership increased by 47 percent;
• Ridership on Missouri’s Kansas City to St. Louis River Runner increased by 43 percent;
• Hiawatha service ridership between Chicago and Milwaukee (jointly sponsored by Illinois and Wisconsin) grew
by 39 percent.
The only routes in the Midwest to lose ridership over the 10-year span were the Pere Marquette (Chicago-Grand Rapids) and Wolverine (Chicago-Detroit-Pontiac) trains.
In 2012, the Chicago-Detroit corridor became the first route outside the Northeast to be rated for 110-mph service, and now the line is being double-tracked in order to extend that service to another part of the route. Meanwhile, part of the Chicago-St. Louis corridor is expected to have up to 110-mph service by late 2017. Work to bring those lines up-to-speed also has brought temporary service delays and disruptions.
Derrick James, a senior manager for Amtrak, said another reason for the five-year ridership drop is lower gasoline prices: The nationwide average price per gallon fell from $3.40 in FY 2011 to $2.13 in FY 2016, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Five-year growth on the Chicago-St. Louis route was flat, while Illinois’ other two routes saw double-digit ridership losses. But in October – the first month of Amtrak’s 2017 fiscal year – Lincoln Service ridership was up more than 51 percent compared to October 2015. Ridership also grew on the Illinois Zephyr/Carl Sandburg service, but not as dramatically – it was up less than one percent – while Illini/Saluki service ridership fell six percent this October compared to last.
While ridership on Michigan’s Blue Water service decreased only slightly (two percent) between FY 2011 and FY 2016, the state’s other two routes experienced double-digit ridership losses over that time period. But this October, ridership on the Blue Water and Pere Marquette routes were up 14 percent and 6 percent, respectively, over October 2015. Wolverine service continued to take a hit, though, dropping 25 percent compared to October 2015. Tim Hoeffner, director of the Office of Rail at the Michigan Department of Transportation, said the drops were due to “infrastructure work and alternative operating schedules.”
Elsewhere among the region’s state-supported routes, comparing October 2016 to October 2015:
• Hoosier State (Chicago-Indianapolis) service continued rebounding, with a 22 percent increase in ridership;
• Hiawatha service (Chicago-Milwaukee) ridership grew more than one percent
• The number of those taking the Missouri River Runner service (St. Louis-Kansas City) fell nine percent.
Trends for the Midwest’s Long-Distance Trains
Ridership for Amtrak’s long-distance trains that traverse Midwestern states bucked the five-year trend, growing a modest three percent (from 2,436,792 passengers to 2,513,104) from FY2011 to FY2016.
Over the last 10 years, long-distance ridership has risen 16 percent (from 2,157,370). The daily City of New Orleans, from Chicago to New Orleans through Illinois, posted the largest 10-year gain, 42 percent. The daily California Zephyr – between Chicago and Emeryville, California, via Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska – had the biggest five-year growth, 17 percent. Among other daily long-distance routes:
• The Texas Eagle – from Chicago to San Antonio, Texas, via Illinois and Missouri – posted a 10-year gain of
32 percent (two percent since FY 2011).
• The Southwest Chief – from Chicago to Los Angeles via Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas – posted a 10-
year gain of 21 percent (three percent since FY 2011).
• The Lake Shore Limited – from Chicago to New York City via Illinois, Indiana and Ohio – posted a 10-year
gain of 20 percent (no change since FY 2011).
• The Capitol Limited – from Chicago to Washington, D.C., via Illinois, Indiana and Ohio – posted a 10-year gain of
15 percent (one percent since FY 2011).
• The three-days per week Cardinal – from Chicago to Washington, D.C., and New York City via Illinois, Indiana
and Ohio – posted a 10-year gain of 10 percent (but down five percent since FY 2011).
• The Empire Builder – from Chicago to Seattle and Portland, Oregon, via Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and
North Dakota – was the only route to lose ridership over the last 10 years, dropping nine percent (down just
three percent since FY 2011). Officials have attributed this to frequent severe flooding and heavy freight train
traffic related to the Bakken Oil field.
In October 2016, the eight Midwestern long-distance routes carried 202,684 passengers, an increase of almost four percent over October 2015.