Smaller Cities Key to Rising Amtrak Ridership in 2013

Oct 16th, 2013 | Posted by

Streetsblog DC reports that Amtrak’s recent ridership growth is fueled in part by smaller cities:

The major growth was in routes serving smaller cities.

Ridership was up 4 percent in Michigan, where construction to improve the speed of connections between Detroit and Chicago is entering the final phases. St. Louis to Chicago boardings were up 9.7 percent, indicating riders are responding to new investments in that line as well. One segment of track was recently upgraded from 79 mph to 110 mph service, and by the end of 2015 up to 75 percent of the route will receive similar improvements, shaving an hour off the trip between the two cities.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvanian, serving Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Philadelphia, saw a 3.3 percent ridership jump. And service in the San Joaquin Valley saw 6.6 percent more passengers.

The rise in San Joaquins ridership is further evidence of the value of building high speed rail to serve Valley cities, as they will contribute riders and revenue that will help sustain the California HSR system. The increase in ridership on the St. Louis to Chicago route, where federally funded improvements in Illinois have raised speeds in some sections to 110 mph, also shows the immediate benefits of higher speed rail service.

The recent resolution to the debt ceiling/shutdown in Congress raises some small hope that the Tea Party stranglehold on the House might ease and a coalition of not insane Republicans and Democrats could potentially cobble together a budget, and that such budget could maybe include some more funds for rail. That may be a faint hope at best. But there is clearly demand for passenger rail in the USA, and Congress ought to be doing everything it can to support it.

  1. JJJJ
    Oct 16th, 2013 at 22:43

    The 2009 stimulus grant included huge amounts of money to upgrade regular rail lines in California. Mostly the PS, but some for the SJ.

    …..what the hell happened to that?

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  2. Andy M
    Oct 17th, 2013 at 02:19

    It’s good to see higher speeds in Illinois and Michigan leading to higher ridership.

    However, the key to making trains more competitive on these routes is also more frequency. The value of higher speed is quickly negated if the train runs at a time that doesn’t fit into people’s personal schedule, and the only way around this is to add trains spread out over different times of day.

    Eric Reply:

    Despite the slightly faster speeds, Amtrak still takes about 5:30 to get from Chicago to St Louis. If you’re already going to spend most of your day traveling, then I don’t think it matters too much exactly what time you leave. And since it only takes 4:30 by road (bus or car), it appears people who take the train are not too time sensitive to begin with.

    A 2 hour train ride from Chicago to St Louis, on the other hand, would be revolutionary.

    John Burrows Reply:

    I wish that Caltrain would run more weekend express trains. We occasionally take Caltrain for a Saturday run from San Jose to SF and we try to catch the “Baby Bullet” at least one way. If we catch the “Bullet” the trip time (about 50 miles) is 1hr-4min. If we miss it the trip time is 1hr-36min, a very big difference.

    Too bad that Caltrain couldn’t add 2 more bullets each way on Saturday at least—Maybe one
    early in the morning, and one mid-afternoon. Don’t know how much of a bump this added service would give to weekend ridership but it would put a big bump in our ridership.

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    Of course, and that requires more equipment and funding for operations. Got to prime the pump.

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    Additional weekend trains should not require more equipment with a commuter operation. There should be idle equipment that covers weekday peaks.
    There should not be a need for more funds. A well run commuter operation should cover its expenses with farebox plus subsidy, and the marginal cost of weekend operation should be met from the farebox, especially with the kind of market and demographics that Caltrain enjoys. Most commuter operators would think they had died and gone to heaven if they had the market that Caltrain has.

    synonymouse Reply:

    Indeed BART has an unnatural lust for that Caltrain market.

    Ted Judah Reply:

    It’s not unnatural, it’s that SP wanted to retain a freight track to the port of SF in the 1950s. BART, as SP’s agent during the early years, recognizes that the UP no longer has any real industrial use for the ROW, so it makes more sense to Ring the Bay and retire Cal Train if public funds are going to be required.

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    Ted, don’t tell that to PFRUG.

    synonymouse Reply:

    Why should PAMPA opt for rattletrap beercan cattlecars with no WC’s and surly strike-happy militants.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    haven’t you said HSR is just a way to enfold all of California in union run rail transportation? Why wouldn’t HSR union members be just as likely to strike?

    wdobner Reply:

    A major increase in frequency without a corresponding reduction in travel time will simply make the service an operational funding sink. Providing hourly service with the current travel times would require as many as ten trains to disappear into the wilds of central Illinois at any given time. Hopefully they’d reappear in St Louis or Chicago Union Station, but still that’d represent a massive increase in costs. And unfortunately it would not come with an appreciable bump in revenue because while it would be moderately more convenient, it’d still consist of an hourly service which takes nearly 6 hours to go end to end. So we’d have a massive cost increase without much growth in terms of market share or revenue.

    As Eric notes, the proposed 220mph Midwest HSR system stands much more of a chance of producing revolutionary increases in revenue and market share while providing a far more convenient service than could ever hope to be offered by Amtrak’s 110mph intercity trains.

    Derek Reply:

    Most of the cost is overhead, so adding trains doesn’t increase costs much. But the matrix effect of adding trains and connections increases revenue exponentially.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    In the specific case of Chicago-St. Louis, an increase in frequency led to an even higher increase in ridership.

    joe Reply:


    I’m sure the somewhat frequent news reports about the project and finishing Phase 1 110 MPH sections helped ‘advertise’ the service.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    This was years ago, before the stimulus.

    Fake Irishman Reply:

    Yep. Like 2005 or 2006 I believe. when they went from three to five trains a day. (or two to four, I can’t remember) Lots of things wrong with Illinois, but they have really been working hard on their passenger rail system over the last two decades — when the stimulus came, they already had a plan in place and had been starting to execute it.

    Fake Irishman Reply:

    It’s also worth noting that ongoing improvements in the line’s infrastructure will allow maximum speeds of 110 mph on about 200 miles of the line (up from 79 mph max) and should cut an hour off the 5:30 travel time. The improvements will also improve on-time performance as well. It’s not HSR by any stretch of the imagination, but it is better. Looking at the route performance of the Keystone East (increases in frequencies from 4 to 12 and speeds 90-110 mph, ridership from 400,000 to 1.2 million) might be a good benchmark to estimate increases in the Lincoln line.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    “Most of the cost is overhead, so adding trains doesn’t increase costs much. But the matrix effect of adding trains and connections increases revenue exponentially.”–Derek

    “In the specific case of Chicago-St. Louis, an increase in frequency led to an even higher increase in ridership.”–Alon Levy

    I believe this actually was demonstrated on the Philadelphia Suburban system in the 1950s. This was an electric suburban-interurban rail line in Philadelphia that was also called the Red Arrow. Someone in the management at the time did some of those calculations in regard to how much was general overhead and other things, and the road increased frequency and improved revenue. This may have meant that a large suburban or interurban car might be running with only four to six passengers, but it still contributed to the overall revenue picture with a right of way, equipment, and employees that had to be paid for anyway. It ultimately wouldn’t be enough to prevent public ownership, but the line did stay in private hands for a longer time than other systems, and maybe that says something.

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