June 29, 2004

CHICAGO (June 29)–State-supported Amtrak trains in Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin reported big ridership increases in May, outpacing Amtrak’s already solid nationwide average growth and prompting rail advocates to intensify their campaign for a federally funded passenger-rail buildup.

In Michigan, the state that gave birth to the mass production of automobiles, travelers are returning to the state’s passenger trains at double-digit rates, according to that state’s Department of Transportation.

MDOT officials said the Chicago-Detroit Wolverine route grew by double digits, carrying 13.6 per cent more passengers in May of this year compared with the same month a year earlier.

That route is served by three trains a day and includes intermediate stops at Hammond-Whiting, Ind., and Niles, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, Albion, Jackson, Ann Arbor, Greenfield Village and Dearborn, Mich.

Wolverine trains also serve the northern-Detroit suburbs of Royal Oak, Birmingham and Pontiac after stopping in downtown Detroit.

Amtrak operates two other lines in Michigan, and both of those showed big ridership jumps as well, even though they offer only one frequency per day.

The Pere Marquette Route, which connects Chicago and Grand Rapids via New Buffalo, St. Joseph, Bangor and Holland, Mi., reported a ridership jump of 11.7 per cent.

And the Blue Water Line, which follows the Wolverine Route from Chicago to Battle Creek before diverging to East Lansing, Flint, Lapeer and Port Huron, saw growth of 8.8.per cent.

Overall, the three Michigan lines carried 339,000 travelers in the eight months ending May 31, the Associated Press reported. That figure was up from 301,000 in the same period the year before. Ticket revenues rose from $8.1 million to $9.1 million.

“The Michigan trains are doing even better than the system as a whole,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari, noting that Amtrak’s nationwide ridership growth during the same period averaged 6.2 per cent. “These trains feature reliable service and attractive schedules, and that adds up to success.”

Illinois and Wisconsin trains surging too

Illinois Department of Transportation officials said their four Amtrak routes reported gains similar to those in Michigan.

Leading the pack were the seven daily Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha trains, which Illinois co-sponsors with Wisconsin. The Hiawathas showed a 13.3-percent gain in ridership and a 12-percent jump in ticket revenues. Right behind came the Chicago-Carbondale Illini, a single daily frequency that carried 11.7 per cent more riders and collected 13 per cent more revenues. The Chicago-Quincy Illinois Zephyr showed a ridership increase of 8.6 per cent with revenue growth of 10.7 per cent, while the Chicago-St. Louis Statehouse—one of three Amtrak trains in the Chicago-St. Louis corridor—carried 8.6 more riders at 10.7 per cent more revenues.

Passenger-train advocates said the increases were encouraging in view of the fact that no particular service improvements seemed to be implicated.

“Except for the Blue Water route, the service hasn’t really changed much over the last year,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “That route used to be a Chicago-Toronto train that passed through Michigan at inconvenient times for local riders. This spring Amtrak stopped running the train across the border and rescheduled it to create more appeal for Michigan passengers, and the strategy seems to be working.

“But the other Michigan trains, along with the Illinois trains, are running on their original timetables” Szabo said. “No special service improvements have been made to those routes, but more and more passengers keep buying tickets each month. That would seem to indicate some sort of popular groundswell in favor of passenger trains.”

Szabo said highway congestion may be responsible for some of the growth.

“I have occasion to use I-94 for personal travel from time to time, and I can certainly understand why people would try to avoid it,” Szabo said. “The truck traffic is brutal, and on the weekends car traffic between Chicago and the West Michigan shore country builds up to the point where people arrive at their cottages too frazzled to enjoy the getaway.

“And it is getting to the point where I-55 to downstate Illinois isn’t much better,” Szabo said. “People are starting to get the train habit, and there would be lots more of them if we had more trains. All of these routes need more frequencies.”

Congress snoozes as passengers vote with their feet

Szabo said the Chicago-Detroit, Chicago-Milwaukee and Chicago-St. Louis corridors need between eight and ten round trips a day, while the remaining corridors now relying on a single daily round trip should have three or four a day. But the needed frequency buildups cannot occur, he said, without a federal program to help states fund passenger rail the way they fund highways and airports.

“Congress remains in denial about this nation’s mobility crisis, and the Bush administration is especially fixated on a Big Oil and highway agenda,” Szabo said. “This double-digit growth on the nation’s small fleet of Amtrak trains should be taken as a signal that more and more Americans are finding air and highway transportation inadequate or dysfunctional.

“It’s time for Congress to act,” Szabo said. “We have plenty of room to add capacity to the nation’s railroads – the most efficient means of travel – and compared to what we spend subsidizing highways and airways, the cost of a rail buildup is modest. These Amtrak ridership increases are not just a success story. They should be a wake-up call. Americans want the convenience and comfort of riding trains, and their future mobility makes it a necessity.”