April 8, 2010

WASHINGTON (April 8)—In what could be a “leading indicator” of possible economic recovery, Amtrak set new ridership records in the first half of Fiscal Year 2010 and says it’s on course to break the all-time full-year ridership record it set in 2008.

The nationwide passenger carrier said that between Oct. 1, 2009, and March 31, 2010, its trains carried 13,619,770 passengers, the largest number ever carried in the first half of a fiscal year and 100,000 passengers ahead of where it stood at the same time in the record-breaking year of 2008.

And the annual summertime travel peak is still to come. Amtrak officials said that if ridership growth continues at the current pace the company will break its 2008 all-time record of 28.7 million passengers.

“Americans are beginning to travel again and are choosing Amtrak as an affordable and efficient way to move around the country,” said Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman. He said improvements in the economy and increases in the price of motor fuel were contributing to the carrier’s improving numbers.

Boardman said March ridership was up by 13.5 per cent over a year ago, with 2.47 million passengers riding the company’s trains.

And for the first time in recent memory, monthly ridership increases were recorded for every single Amtrak train and route, including the Northeast Corridor, the long-distance overnight trains, the 30 daily round trips sponsored by the state of California, all three routes sponsored by the State of Illinois and the Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha routes that Illinois sponsors gently with Wisconsin.

“March ridership on the Chicago-St. Louis ‘Lincoln Service’ trains was up by double digits—18 per cent,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Robert W. Guy. “The Chicago-Carbondale route was up 3.8 per cent and the Chicago-Quincy route was up 4.1 percent.”

Guy said those numbers suggest two things: The nation appears to be pulling out of the recession and Illinois needs to get to work on acquiring additional rolling stock.

“We’re running out of seats,” he said. “For nearly three years Amtrak’s Illinois trains have been selling out on Fridays, Sundays, public holidays and during the summer travel peak.

“Can you imagine what the demand for seat space is going to be in 2012 when IDOT finishes its upgrades on the Chicago-Springfield-St. Louis route and the trains start running at 110 miles per hour? What’s going to happen when we open the new services to Rockford and Dubuque and the extension into the Quad Cities? If we don’t bring more capacity on line we’re going to disappoint a lot of people who want to become rail travelers.

“Amtrak trains are busy everywhere now,” Guy said. “Even the long-distance trains, which for a long time were considered the ‘weak’ part of the system, are filling up with passengers. People are using trains for overnight travel again.”

Amtrak said March ridership on the Empire Builder between Chicago and Seattle was up 16.4 per cent, and the California Zephyr from Chicago to Oakland was up 18 per cent.

“The Builder carried over 46,000 passengers in March—more than 1,500 a day and more than any other single train in the Amtrak system,” Guy said. “Fortunately, it’s getting a fourth sleeping car in time for the summer-vacation surge. That’s a capacity of 176 passengers in first class alone.”

Boardman agreed that “fleeting up” for the fast-building wave of demand for train travel is a priority. He called new cars and locomotives “Amtrak’s most urgent unfunded need.”

And Amtrak Chairman Tom Carper, in an exclusive interview with “Hot Topics,” said the ridership surge “has been building for a long time.”

“I believe the customers made this decision a long time ago but it’s taken Washington and the state capitals longer to realize it,” he said. “I think Amtrak and the states have been doing a better job. If we continue to acknowledge the importance of on-time performance and if we continue to improve our relationships with the freight railroads, the ridership is going to continue to grow and the frequencies are going to increase.

“I’m really excited,” Carper said. “It’s like this is the end of the beginning. It’s happening.”