November 18, 2011

ST. LOUIS (Oct. 13)—It’s official: Amtrak announced in a ceremony at the St. Louis rail station today that the national passenger rail carrier broke its all-time ridership record in Fiscal Year 2011, carrying 30.2 million passengers and far surpassing its pre-recession figure of 28.4 million carried in 2008.

The announcement came just as a new report from Democrats in the U.S. House documented that intercity passenger rail ridership has been growing faster than air and auto travel since at least 2001.

Amtrak records show that after the company’s 2008 ridership peak the 2009 recession dealt Amtrak a temporary setback in which ridership sagged back to 26.7 million.

But in 2010 the trains rallied, returning to the 2008 levels before staging the spectacular 2011 spurt that attracted 2 million new passengers to the company’s 23,000-mile system.

“Make no mistake, train travel is getting popular,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Robert W. Guy, who attended the St. Louis ceremony. “You cannot dismiss these kinds of numbers as a fad that’s going to go away tomorrow, nor can you attribute the growing popularity of train travel to the high price of gasoline. Gasoline prices have remained somewhat stagnant, but the growth in train ridership has continued.”

And despite the sudden eruption in ridership figures between 2010 and 2011, growth in train ridership is nothing new, Guy said.

“Actually, Amtrak has been the nation’s fastest-growing form of travel for 10 years now,” he said.

Guy pointed to a recent report published by the Minority Staff of the U.S. House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee that showed Amtrak’s popularity is growing faster than that of driving or air travel.

“In the decade since 2001, annual domestic emplanements—the number of people buying airline tickets—grew only about 4.58 per cent, and annual Vehicle Miles Traveled in private automobiles grew 10.69 per cent,” Guy said.

“But during that same period transit ridership grew 13.23 per cent, and Amtrak ridership showed the strongest growth rate of all—-28.49 per cent,” he said.

“Train-riding is growing nearly three times faster than driving and six times faster than flying,” Guy said. “You just can’t argue anymore that Americans won’t ride trains.”

Despite Amtrak’s steep and prolonged growth in popularity, however, the Republican-dominated U.S. House has proposed budget cuts that would sharply reduce Amtrak’s daily departures, particularly the daytime corridor trains supported by the legislatures of 15 states, including Illinois.

“Illinois has one of the most successful state-supported passenger-train networks in the nation,” Guy said. “We have four round trips a day between Chicago and St. Louis and two each on the Chicago-Carbondale and Chicago-Quincy routes. Ridership and revenues on all of them are up sharply, and on the Chicago-Carbondale route the growth is in double digits.”

Guy urged all UTU members to reach out immediately to their U.S. representatives with phone calls demanding that Amtrak’s 2012 budget for state-supported trains be sustained at the 2011 level.

“If you don’t know the name of your congressman just use the ‘Legislative Lookup’ feature on our Web site,” he said. “Then phone the representative’s Washington or District office and tell the person who answers the phone that you’re a constituent and you are urging the member to reject the Amtrak budget cuts and to support Illinois’ strong and successful corridor-train network with continuation of 2011 funding.

“Keep your message short, clear and courteous,” Guy said. “Feel free to mention that you are a UTU member.

“But feel free to reach out as well to your friends, neighbors and relatives who are not railroad employees and ask them to call their congressmen as well,” Guy said.

“For UTU members, maintenance of the Illinois passenger-train network is a jobs issue, and your congressman will understand that,” he said.

But for millions of other Illinoisians, he said, the state trains are a mobility issue and an economic-development issue.

“Thousands of young people from the Chicago area ride those trains to reach our four large Downstate universities, while Downstaters swarm the trains each weekend to reach attractions in Chicago,” he said. “During the middle of the week Downstate businessmen ride the trains to meetings in Chicago, and several Downstate communities have begun redeveloping their downtown areas with new businesses that thrive by serving people using the busy rail station,” Guy said.

“Trains are more than a jobs issue for railroaders now,” he said. “They are providing a new kind of mobility that millions of Americans are demanding, and they’re generating new business starts and new jobs for people who will never work for a railroad. We need to tell our congressional representatives that trains are good for everybody and deserve full funding.”