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Midwest maintains long-term passenger rail ridership growth
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Midwest maintains long-term passenger rail ridership growth

Ridership and ticket revenue on state-supported passenger trains in the Midwest enjoyed robust growth over the 10 years from Fiscal Year 2008 to FY 2018, according to an analysis by the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

Ridership on state-supported corridor services rose nine percent over the 10 years from Fiscal Year 2008 to FY 2018 while ticket revenue rose 33 percent. Ridership on the region’s long-distance trains rose two percent in the same period.

Midwestern State-Supported Trains Ten-Year Ridership
Total ridership on the region's nine state-supported trains grew from 2.6 million in FY 2008 to more than 2.8 million in FY 18.

Among state-supported trains, the Blue Water (Chicago-Port Huron, Mich., daily) posted the biggest 10-year gain – 36 percent, followed by the Lincoln Service (Chicago-St. Louis, four daily) with a 23 percent gain. (See MIPRC’s chart of ridership on state-supported services, here).

Other routes that saw 10-year gains include the Hiawatha (Chicago-Milwaukee, seven daily), up 13 percent; the Missouri River Runner (St. Louis-Kansas City, two daily), up 12 percent; and the Wolverine (Chicago-Detroit/Pontiac, three daily), up two percent.

Al Johnson, manager of the Railroad Operations Section in the Michigan Department of Transportation’s Office of Rail, attributed ridership gains on the Blue Water and Wolverine to track and signal improvements for 110-mph service, station improvements, better on-time performance and additional passenger amenities like WiFi, bicycle racks and the ability to bring pets on board.

Illinois Department of Transportation officials credit the Lincoln Service’s gains to increased train frequencies, new stations and the recent trackwork to upgrade the corridor for 110-mph service, and higher gasoline prices.

“The Lincoln Service ridership gains are a great example of what can occur when you have frequent and reliable service throughout the day, and quality amenities to offer to the customer,” said Beth McCluskey, director of the Illinois Department of Transportation’s Office of Intermodal Project Implementation. “New equipment is the next step in improving those amenities and the overall customer experience.”

Eric Curtit, administrator of railroads at the Missouri Department of Transportation, said the Missouri River Runner’s 10-year improvement was due to better on-time performance.

As for the Hiawatha, Arun Rao, passenger rail manager at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, said its steady annual growth to record high ridership in FY 2018 can be attributed to development of new stations, best-in-class on-time performance, and improved amenities.

“The Milwaukee-Chicago corridor is seeing significant economic development, and travelers and businesses in the region have been increasingly eager to use the fast, reliable, convenient, and comfortable transportation alternative that the Hiawatha Service provides,” Rao said.

Routes that saw decreased ridership over those 10 years include the Pere Marquette (Chicago-Grand Rapids, Mich., daily), down 14 percent; the Hoosier State (Chicago-Indianapolis, four per week), down 12 percent; the Illini/Saluki (Chicago-Carbondale, Ill., twice daily), down nine percent; and the Carl Sandburg/Illinois Zephyr (Chicago-Quincy, Ill., twice daily), down six percent.

The Pere Marquette’s ridership was likely impacted harder by gasoline prices due to the route’s shorter length, Johnson said.

And while the declines on the Illini/Saluki can be attributed to poorer on-time performance, drops on the Carl Sandburg/Illinois Zephyr are harder to determine, since on-time performance has remained excellent, McCluskey said.

Jim Stark, director of the Indiana Department of Transportation’s Multimodal Division, said the Hoosier State suffered historically from a lack of active marketing and from its origin as a way to shuttle train cars to and from Amtrak’s shop at Beech Grove, Indiana. It became a truly state-supported route only in 2014, he added.

Active marketing is now being done, and better cooperation between Amtrak, CSX (whose tracks host the train) and the state should improve on-time performance which, in turn, should increase ridership, Stark said.

Ridership on Long-Distance Trains that Serve the Midwest
The Midwest’s eight long-distance trains, too, saw an overall 10-year ridership gain – two percent – though results on individual routes varied widely from a 33 percent gain on the Texas Eagle (Chicago-San Antonio, Texas, daily) to a 23 percent drop on the Empire Builder (Chicago-Seattle/Portland, Ore., daily).

(See MIPRC’s chart of ridership on long-distance trains, here).

Other gains in long-distance trains included the City of New Orleans (Chicago-New Orleans, daily), up 20 percent; the California Zephyr (Chicago-Emeryville, Calif., daily), up 19 percent; and the Capitol Limited (Chicago-Washington, D.C., daily), up one percent.

Ridership also dropped, however, on the Cardinal (Chicago-Washington, D.C.-New York City, three per week), down 11 percent, and two percent on the Lake Shore Limited (Chicago-Boston/New York City, daily), while ridership on the Southwest Chief (Chicago-Los Angeles, daily) was statistically flat – up less than 100 passengers from FY 08 to FY 18.

One-Year Ridership Growth
While the long-term trend remains healthy for both state-supported corridors and long-distance trains, year-to-year ridership didn’t fare as well from FY 2017 to FY 2018, rising just 0.4 percent overall on state-supported routes.

Although the Wolverine saw a healthy one-year, 5.4 percent gain, only two other state-supported trains did, too: the Pere Marquette, up 2.2 percent– a promising sign, given the train’s long-term drop – and the Hiawatha, up 1.8 percent.

In Illinois, ridership on the Illini/Saluki was down nine percent; the Carl Sandburg/Illinois Zephyr was down 6.1 percent; and the Lincoln Service was down 0.7 percent. Elsewhere, the Hoosier State was down 5.5 percent, and the Missouri River Runner was down 2.5 percent.

Curtit attributed the Missouri River Runner’s one-year decline to “significant track work and considerable on-time performance issues stemming from this work.”

Among long-distance trains, only the California Zephyr saw, barely, a one-year ridership gain – up one percent.

The Cardinal – whose route was temporarily cut back to Chicago-Washington in 2018 while Amtrak made extensive track repairs at the train’s eastern terminus, New York City’s Penn Station – saw a one-year drop of 14 percent while the Lake Shore Limited, which also uses Penn Station, dropped 13 percent.

Among other long-distance trains, from FY 17 to FY 18, the Southwest Chief was down nine percent; the City of New Orleans dropped seven percent; the Empire Builder dropped six percent; the Capitol Limited dropped five percent and the Texas Eagle dropped three percent.

Derrick James, Amtrak’s senior manager for state relations and business development, said freight car volume on host railroads is breaking records, which while good for those companies, “is having a deleterious effect on on-time performance.”

Revenue growth
Overall ticket revenue from the Midwest’s state-supported corridor trains (See MIPRC’s revenue chart, here) rose a robust 33 percent over the 10 years from FY 2008 to FY 2018, from $64.5 million to $85.6 million.

Gainers were led by the Missouri River Runner, which saw a 69 percent growth; the Blue Water, up 58 percent and the Hiawatha, up 47 percent.

Other routes posting 10-year revenue gains included the Lincoln Service, up 41 percent; the Wolverine, up 37 percent; the Hoosier State, up 34 percent; and the Pere Marquette, up 11 percent.

The Carl Sandburg/Illinois Zephyr gained one percent, but the Illini/Saluki dropped 13 percent.

Year-to-year revenue on state-supported trains grew 3.3 percent from FY 17 to FY 18, led by the Wolverine which had a one-year gain of 8.9 percent.

Other routes with one-year gains included the Lincoln Service and Hiawatha, each up 3.8 percent; the Pere Marquette, up 3.7 percent; the Missouri River Runner, up three percent; and the Blue Water, up a modest 0.5 percent.

One-year revenue drops afflicted the Hoosier State, down six percent, the Illini/Saluki, down 5.5 percent, and the Carl Sandburg/Illinois Zephyr, down five percent.

Nationally, Amtrak reported that FY 18 was its best yet with operating earnings of $168 million, up 13.3 percent over FY 17, and total revenue of $3.38 billion, up 2.2 percent over last year. The railroad carried 31.7 million riders – ridership grew on state-supported routes and in the Northeast Corridor, but long-distance trains saw ridership drop 3.9 percent “…due to the hundreds of trains truncated or canceled due to weather events, infrastructure outages, planned repairs, and poor on-time performance across much of the host railroad network used by Amtrak trains,” according to an Amtrak press release.

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