December 12, 2006

SPRINGFIELD (Dec. 12)—Intercity passenger-train ridership in Illinois skyrocketed in November after Amtrak began operating four additional daily frequencies paid for by the Illinois Department of Transportation.

IDOT said the 284-mile Chicago-Springfield-St. Louis corridor, which got two new state-sponsored daily round trips, was the system’s growth leader–up 91 per cent over November 2005.

But growth also was impressive on the 310-mile Chicago-Champaign-Carbondale corridor, where a new morning departure from each end of the line drove ridership up by 61 per cent, and on the 258-mile Chicago-Galesburg-Quincy route, where a second daily frequency raised patronage 35 per cent.

“This was what we’ve been trying to say all along—there is a pent-up demand for inter-city passenger rail, and increased frequencies raise ridership exponentially,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “Our union’s campaign for an expanded passenger-rail program in Illinois is paying off big-time, and it’s paying off quick.

“A 91-per cent increase in the first month of operation is unheard of,” Szabo said. “Illinois’ new trains only started running on October 30, and in their first full month of operation one of the routes nearly doubled its business. Even in California, which is the national leader in state-sponsored passenger trains, they’ve never seen a one-month jump in ridership on that scale.”

Szabo said that contrary to what passenger-train critics had claimed, the new frequencies are building new markets rather than cannibalizing riders from the existing trains.

“There’s been a shifting of some riders from the old trains to the new ones, but it’s negligible,” he said.

“Look at train No. 305, the 5:15 p.m. departure from Chicago to St. Louis,” Szabo said. “In November 2005, when it was one of only three daily trains and the last departure of the day from Chicago to Downstate, it carried 6,074 passengers.

“In November 2006, when it was one of five daily departures, including a new 7 p.m. departure that lets travelers linger in Chicago for dinner, it carried 6,047 passengers, meaning it lost less than one passenger per day to the two new trains. Meanwhile, the new trains added significant numbers of their own new riders.”

Szabo said such performance refutes skeptics who long have claimed that rail travel in the U.S. is a “niche” market with a low, fixed level of demand that would not rise if more service were provided.

“Illinois has totally demolished that kind of logic,” he said. “The market for rail travel is much bigger than anyone has imagined.

“Frequency is the key,” Szabo said. “When people have only one daily round trip to ride, they essentially have no choices. When we had only one 6 p.m. departure from Chicago to Quincy and one 6 a.m. departure from Quincy to Chicago, people could not make a day trip from Chicago to Quincy. They had to take the evening train out, spend a night in a hotel in order to see Quincy in daylight, and then spend another night in a hotel before catching the 6 a..m. train back to Chicago. No wonder people stuck with their cars.”

By doubling the number of frequencies, IDOT actually tripled the number of choices, Szabo said:

“Now they can take the morning train out and the evening train back on the same day, or take the evening train out, spend a night and a day in Quincy and take the evening train back on the second day, or do it the old way and spend two nights and a day in Quincy,” he said.

“The bottom line is that as the frequencies grow by addition the choices grow by multiplication—and so does the ridership.”

Szabo said continuing ridership growth also will depend on settlement of other issues that currently plague the trains.

“We have to get on-time performance over 90 per cent or better,” he said. “Nothing less is acceptable. Reliability is extremely important to people when they make their travel decisions. We also have to improve overall train speeds, and reduce trip times, which is why infrastructure development is so important.

“Likewise, customer service has to be absolutely top-notch at all times. The state is funding these trains and they have very high expectations from Amtrak, the freight partners, and even our train crews. All of us must excel in order to continue to expand the network.”

But as for passenger-train demand, Szabo sees no problem:

“The new trains have proven it’s virtually bottomless,” he said. “As long as we can get the quality up and keep it up, any quantity we add to the system will find its market and keep it. The future of passenger rail service in Illinois is whatever we want to make it. Think of the job growth….”