October 18, 2010

WASHINGTON (Oct. 18)—Amtrak said its trains set a new annual ridership record during Fiscal Year 2010, carrying 28,716,857 passengers on the company’s fleet of intercity corridor and overnight long-distance trains.

That total slightly surpassed the previous record of 28,716,407 passengers carried in FY 2008, just before the U.S. economy sagged into the worst slump since the Great Depression.

“It almost seems as if passenger trains are leading America out of the recession,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Robert W. Guy.

“Amtrak said its 2010 ridership was 5.7 percent ahead of 2009,” Guy said. Retailing isn’t recovering at that rate, nor are lodging, restaurants, or home-building, but Americans keep buying more and more train tickets.”

Amtrak Chairman and CEO Joseph Boardman said the company’s employees deserved at least some of the credit for train travel’s growing appeal.

“More and more people see passenger rail as a way to get to where they need to go, and when our front-line employees put them first it helps to bring passengers back for another trip,” he said.

Boardman also cited highway congestion and increasing problems with the airline system as additional reasons for a modal shift toward train travel.

Virtually every route in the Amtrak system displayed growth in FY 2010, with Illinois’ state-sponsored Lincoln Service between Chicago and St. Louis among the double-digit leaders. Ridership on Lincoln trains grew 13.1 percent, while revenue rose 17.6 percent as passengers bid up the price of tickets. Ridership on the Chicago-Carbondale corridor rose 2 percent, and the two daily Chicago-Quincy round trips experienced a ridership gain of 3.4 percent.

“For the first time since our state began sponsoring passenger rail service, its trains carried more than a million passengers in a year,” Guy said. “To put it in exact terms, the three state-supported corridors carried 1,045,824 passengers in FY 2010. If you throw in the ridership on the Hiawatha trains to Milwaukee, which get 25 percent of their sponsorship funding from Illinois, the total ridership comes to 1,828,884.”

But the totals reported for the state-supported trains tell only part of the story. The overnight long-distance Amtrak trains that do not receive state support also have been carrying more local passengers traveling to and from points within Illinois.

Amtrak’s Texas Eagle, which serves the same route as the Lincoln Service trains, carried 69,089 intrastate Illinois passengers of its own in FY 2010, bringing the grand total for the route to 642,413 trips. On the Chicago-Quincy route, Amtrak’s California Zephyr and Southwest Chief carried an additional 29,899 passengers, bringing that corridor’s total ridership to 239,365. On the Chicago-Carbondale route, the City of New Orleans carried 39,321 intrastate passengers, boosting the line’s total Illinois ridership to 264,934.

Guy said the extra passengers using Amtrak’s long-distance trains for local travel in Illinois suggest an encouraging trend may be under way.

“People are becoming more sophisticated about rail travel,” he said. “They can discriminate between low-level rolling stock and the more comfortable high-level equipment. They know these long-distance trains have dining cars and lounge cars. Some of them are renting private room space so they can work while they travel. And they have shown they’re willing to pay a premium for access to superior accommodations.”

Amtrak’s long-distance trains also showed surprising advances in nationwide ridership and revenue. The Texas Eagle, which connects Chicago with San Antonio, had a 10.2 percent jump in total ridership, while the City of New Orleans, was hit with a 16.6 percent increase. The California Zephyr and Southwest Chief had a 9.4 and 7.7 percent uptick, respectively.

“There’s no question these numbers show train travel is getting more popular,” Guy said. “The reasons are not always clear. In some cases its frustration with the airline system. In others it’s highway congestion or the price of gas or just the sheer convenience of being able to board at downtown locations that serve as the nerve centers of communities across Illinois.”

Guy said there is increasing evidence that business travelers and young people are switching to the train because they can use their personal electronics on board.

“The laptops, hand-held devices, cell phones, music players and game machines are becoming essential to the lives of more and more Americans,” he said. “When they realize they can use these tools and toys easily and safely while riding a train, it’s ‘All Aboard!’”

Guy said the steep climb in ridership and revenues for the overnight long-distance trains was particularly encouraging because it came in defiance of conventional opinion.

“For years and years we heard anti-train legislators dismiss these long-distance trains as obsolete remnants of the past that nobody was riding anymore,” he said.

“But the numbers tell a different story. The long-distance trains are increasingly popular and very often sold out weeks in advance. We need more rolling stock—quickly—to make sure everyone who wants to ride can get a seat.

“Couple this ridership news with the fact that the freight railroads are experiencing robust gains in car-loadings and revenue over last year’s numbers, and you can see why it’s an exciting time to be a part of the rail industry.

“And no one should be prouder than our members, in both the passenger and freight sides” Guy said. “The older members in particular can recall the dark days when rail travel and shipping were in decline and railroad work appeared to have no future and no respect.

“Today there’s a complete turnaround in how our members and their industry are perceived,” Guy said. “Their years of patience and hard work have paid off, and the public increasingly appreciates and respects the work they do. Hopefully, that new level of public trust will turn into more job opportunities, better job security and a safer workplace.”