March 16, 2004

CHICAGO (March 16)—Six of Amtrak’s eight Midwestern corridor routes scored double-digit ridership gains last year, prompting the UTU’s Illinois Legislative Board to renew its call for a federal transportation program to raise passenger rail capacity and speed.

“The traveling public has spoken,” said Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “People are coming out and buying train tickets faster than at any time since the OPEC oil boycott of 1973-74.”

According to figures released by Amtrak headquarters in Washington, ridership on the carrier’s Midwest corridor trains grew by an average of 15.9 per cent in the May-December 2003 period compared with the same period in 2002.

Of the six winning corridors, two stood out as stars. The Chicago-Springfield-St. Louis corridor showed a ridership increase of 21.6 per cent, while totals on the Chicago-Detroit/Pontiac route were up 24.1 per cent. Both corridors offer three round trips per day.

“There’s no mystery why those two corridors had such robust growth,” Szabo said. “They are the only corridors in the Midwestern where government has paid for upgrades to the track and signals.”

Szabo noted that Amtrak, which owns a 70-mile segment of the Chicago-Detroit line between Porter, Ind., and Kalamazoo, Mich., has installed new rail and a Positive Train Control (PTC) system which since January 2002 have allowed passenger trains to operate at 90 mph. As the PTC technology is tested and approved, speeds eventually will rise to 110 mph.

“And in Illinois,” he said, “we now have 118 miles of new track on the Chicago-St. Louis route paid for by the Illinois Department of Transportation.”

The Illinois track’s PTC system, which is being financed by the Federal Railroad Administration and the Association of American Railroads, has not yet been commissioned, so trains are still limited to a maximum speed of 79 miles per hour.

“But the ride is so smooth and the scheduling has become so reliable that substantial numbers of travelers now are relying on trains for travel in the Chicago-St. Louis corridor,” Szabo said. “Train travel is getting to be fun again.”

Even where trains run on conventional infrastructure, ridership growth has been up sharply—14.5 per cent between Chicago and Milwaukee, 14.8 per cent between Chicago and Quincy, 14.8 per cent between Chicago and Carbondale, and 14 per cent and 14 per cent between Chicago and Grand Rapids, according to Amtrak figures.

“That’s really remarkable when you realize that except for Chicago-Milwaukee those routes have only one train per day,” Szabo said. “It makes you wonder how many people would switch to trains if there were multiple frequencies so they would have a greater choice of travel times.”

Szabo said the ridership surge also was astonishing because of the age and unsuitability of much of Amtrak’s rolling stock.

“It’s been 20 years since Amtrak last had a budget to buy new passenger cars for its Midwestern routes,” he said, adding, “Their fleet is getting tired, and some of the cars weren’t even designed for intercity trains, but the customers keep coming anyway.”

Szabo said Amtrak needs not only a modern fleet but a larger one.

“More cars and locomotives would mean more train frequencies plus new route openings,” he said. “Midwestern travelers need both.”

Two of Amtrak’s Midwestern routes—St. Louis-Kansas City and Chicago-Indianapolis—did not match the performance of the others. The Chicago-Indianapolis route grew only 4 per cent, while the two daily trains across Missouri actually lost 0.7 per cent of their riders.

“Poor timekeeping probably is depressing ridership in Missouri,” Szabo said. “The Union Pacific single-track route is extremely congested, with up to 60 freight trains a day. It’s not a congenial operating environment for passenger trains. And the Missouri legislature keeps threatening to cut Amtrak’s operating assistance, which has resulted in several station closures. All of that makes people reluctant to use the train.”

But service upgrades are unlikely unless Congress and the administration provide Amtrak with a higher capital budget and the states with matching funds so they can build additional rail capacity, according to U.S. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.).

“For the second year in a row, the President’s budget proposed only $900 million for Amtrak, or half of what Amtrak President David Gunn has said is needed to keep the passenger railroad running,” Durbin told a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing March 9.

“Let me simply say this game is getting old,” Durbin said. “Every year the President drives Amtrak to the brink of insolvency by proposing an inadequate budget for the railroad and Congress is forced to ride to the rescue. It’s time for the administration to show leadership on this issue and work with Congress to enact constructive reforms while ensuring long-term viability for our nation’s only intercity passenger railroad.”

“Dick Durbin is right,” Szabo said. “The administration is not showing leadership on the passenger-train issue.

“But you know who is?–the travelers of the Midwest. They’ve taken matters into their own hands and decided to ride trains even if the tracks and the rolling stock are old. How many U.S. industries today are reporting double-digit growth? The airlines can’t do it. Car manufacturers can’t do it. Hotels and restaurants can’t do it.

“But for some reason passenger trains can. It’s time for the president and his administration to wake up.”