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Midwest ridership sustaining strong 10-year growth
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Midwest ridership sustaining strong 10-year growth

Passenger rail ridership in the Midwest maintained strong overall growth over the decade from federal fiscal years 2009 to 2019, according to MIPRC’s annual evaluation of Amtrak ridership data.

Ridership on state-supported corridor services rose 14 percent over the 10 years from Federal Fiscal Year (FFY) 2009 to FFY 2019, while ridership on the region’s long-distance trains rose five percent in the same period.

State-supported routes

Total ridership on the Midwest’s eight state-supported routes grew from more than 2.5 million passengers in FFY09 to 2.9 million passengers in FFY19 (see MIPRC’s chart here) despite losing the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State (once, four days per week) which ceased operation on June 30 after Indiana declined to maintain $3 million in annual funding for the route. 

One-year gains (FYY18 to FFY19) for Midwestern states’ routes was at four percent. Nationwide, ridership on state-supported routes grew 2.4 percent during the same period.

MIPRC Chair Robert Guy said the latest 10-year ridership numbers “show once again that demand continues to grow in the Midwest for intercity passenger rail and further demonstrate the need to improve existing service, increase frequencies along current corridors and expand service into areas such as the Quad Cities.”

Tops among these routes were:

• Michigan's Chicago-Port Huron Blue Water (once daily), with a 37 percent 10-year ridership jump despite a two percent drop, however, from FFY18 to FFY19.
• Illinois' Chicago-St. Louis Lincoln Service (four daily), with a 24 percent 10-year jump, including a seven percent one-year increase from FFY18 to FFY19.
• The Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha (seven daily), jointly operated by Illinois and Wisconsin with a 19 percent 10-year jump, including a four percent one-year increase from FFY18 to FFY19.

Michigan's Chicago-Detroit/Pontiac Wolverine (thrice daily) also gained ridership, showing a nine percent 10-year jump from FFY09 to FFY19, including a four percent one-year bump from FFY18 to FFY19.

Jeff Martin, intercity services and equipment analyst in the Michigan Department of Transportation’s Office of Rail, said improved ridership on the Blue Water and Wolverine benefited from the state’s work to increase speed and reliability, provide new and refurbished equipment, and from “multiple improvements made to customer amenities on all Michigan services” including Wi-Fi and the ability to bring bicycles and pets aboard.

Missouri's St. Louis-Kansas City Missouri River Runner (twice daily) saw a two percent 10-year jump in passengers from FFY 2009 to FFY 2019, despite a nine percent one-year drop from FFY18 to FFY19 that state official blame on flooding; service was canceled for 41 days, said Eric Curtit, the Missouri Department of Transportation's administrator of railroads.

Perhaps surprisingly, ridership on Illinois' Chicago-Carbondale, Ill., Illini and Saluki (once each daily), which are among Amtrak’s most-delayed trains nationwide, gained three percent over the last decade, including a nine percent jump over the last year. Illinois designated $100 million in its new $45 billion “Rebuild Illinois” capital spending law for projects to improve on-time performance on this corridor.

Illini/Saluki ridership grew as on-time performance improved slightly from FY18 to FY19, Illinois Department of Transportation officials said.

“We recognize this route has a long way to go to get to a service reliability level that we and our riders would be satisfied with, and that would be in line with our other routes in the state,” said Todd Popish, IDOT’s passenger rail section chief. “We are committed to finding solutions with Amtrak and Canadian National that will continue to help drive on-time performance up to those preferred levels.”

Two routes, however, saw ridership increases from FFY18 to FFY19 while suffering 10-year declines from FFY09 to FFY19:

• Michigan's Chicago-Grand Rapids Pere Marquette (once daily) gained two percent over the last year, but dropped five percent over the last decade.
• Illinois' Chicago-Quincy, Ill., Illinois Zephyr and Carl Sandburg (once each daily) gained one percent over the last year, but also dropped five percent over the last decade.

The Pere Marquette’s one-year gain came despite a drop in on-time performance, Martin said.

Long-distance routes

Total ridership on the Midwest’s eight long-distance routes – which comprise just over half of Amtrak’s total national network routes – grew five percent over the 10-year period, from almost 2.3 million passengers in FFY09 to 2.4 million passengers in FFY19, including a small (0.4) percent gain from FFY18 to FFY19. (See MIPRC’s chart here.)

Ridership on the nation’s 15 long-distance routes grew a total of 0.9 percent during the last fiscal year.

Most of the Midwest’s long-distance routes had strong 10-year growth, even as ridership stagnated a bit during the past year. The Chicago-San Antonio Texas Eagle (once daily) led with 24 percent 10-year growth but saw a four percent drop from FFY18 to FFY 19.

Likewise, the Chicago-New Orleans City of New Orleans (once daily) had a 20 percent 10-year growth but a one percent dip from FFY18 to FFY 19. And the Chicago-Emeryville, Calif., California Zephyr (once daily) had a 19 percent 10-year growth and a two percent drop from FFY18 to FFY 19.

Two routes, the Southwest Chief and the Lake Shore Limited, had positive growth both during the past decade and past year. Ridership on the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief (once daily) grew six percent over those 10 years, including a two percent bump from FFY18 to FFY19.

The Chicago-Boston/New York City Lake Shore Limited (once daily) grew seven percent, including a six percent jump from FFY18 to FFY19.

But ridership on the Chicago-Washington, D.C. Capitol Limited (once daily) dropped three percent over the 10-year period, including a four percent drop from FFY18 to FFY19.

Two routes, however, saw flat or declining ridership over those 10 years, but growth from FFY18 to FFY19:

• The Chicago-Seattle/Portland, Ore., Empire Builder (once daily), dropped 16 percent from FFY09 to FFY19. Ridership from FFY18 to FFY19 grew one percent, however.
• Ridership on the Chicago-Washington, D.C.-New York city Cardinal (three days per week) was statistically flat – 108,614 passengers in FFY09 to 108,935 passengers in FFY19 – but one-year ridership from FFY18 to FFY19 rose 13 percent.

Amtrak’s fiscal year 2019 ridership figures also indicated that almost half of its total ridership nationwide, 15.4 million of the 32.5 million Amtrak riders in FFY19, came from state-supported routes – a 2.4 percent increase over 2018.

FFY 2019 revenue numbers by route have not yet been released, but are expected within the next few weeks, according to Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari. We’ll update this story when that information is available.

You can read Amtrak’s press release on its overall FFY 2019 ridership and revenue here.

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