Smaller Cities Propel Amtrak Ridership to a New High

Amtrak ridership has risen for 10 of the last 11 years. Image: Amtrak

It’s been another year of ridership growth for Amtrak, despite the difficulties caused by Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast. In fiscal year 2013, the nation’s intercity rail service saw its 10th ridership increase in 11 years, carrying a record 31.6 million passengers [PDF].

Amtrak's San Joaquin service saw a 6.6 percent jump in ridership in Fiscal Year 2013. Image: ##http://www.modbee.com/2013/10/14/2975005/amtraks-san-joaquin-trains-set.html##Modesto Bee##

The Northeast Corridor still accounts for a huge share of Amtrak’s total ridership, with 11.4 million trips, but the ridership on that segment was down slightly from the previous year. 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.

News of the ridership high coincided with the release of a new poll of eight midwestern Congressional districts, showing support for Amtrak is much stronger than beltway political squabbles would indicate. DFM Research of St. Paul, Minnesota, interviewed 3,000 randomly selected residents of Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Colorado, Kansas, and Iowa about their opinions on federal spending for the nation’s intercity passenger rail service, in a survey commissioned by SMART, a member union of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department.

By more than a four-to-one margin, respondents said they support maintaining or increasing current federal spending levels to support Amtrak. Only about 17 percent of those interviewed supported eliminating funding for the service. Even 60 percent of self-identified Republicans said they supported maintaining or increasing funding compared to just 32 percent who preferred eliminating federal subsidies.

The survey and ridership data come as partisan gridlock and the government shutdown threaten to bring Amtrak service to a halt.

  • BG, finally feck free

    Note to AMTRAK: PLEASE restore service from NYC to Worcester, Mass. The train station is magnificent, and it’s right on the way to Boston. I’d take the train in a heartbeat, and so would a lot of other people!!!!

  • Anonymous

    If somebody could explain to Republicans how much middle class white folks (lime me!) love going places by train, Amtrak might survive. Unfortunately, Republicans of a certain age have a 1970s-1980s mindset that only poor black people and college students (both groups that tend to vote Democratic) ride trains.

  • Anonymous

    It’s kind of obvious that the US needs more passenger trains like, everywhere. If I could take a train for less than the cost of air or car I would take it. Who wouldn’t?

  • alex

    and onward to DC, please!

    Signed,
    college student who is currently at school during Fall Break because travel from Worcester is a hassle

  • Alex Bollinger

    I once took the Amtrak (I live in France and take the train in Europe all the time). Amtrak kicks serious butt when it comes to space and comfort – since the seat next to me was empty I almost had a little apartment to myself. European trains aren’t crammed, but you do have to limited space and you can’t have too much baggage. There’s no reason the US can’t have an awesome train system, and, considering the subsidies cars get (those highways aren’t free), there’s no reason trains shouldn’t get some government help.

  • AlanF

    That would be the Inland Route Regional service which is in the MA plans. It is not up to Amtrak to run Regionals to Worcester MA, it will require MA to pay for it and to also fund track upgrades for the CSX owned Worcester to Springfield tracks. Someone in Worcester can get to NYC via the Lake Shore Limited connecting to the Vermonter at Springfield. Going from NYC to Worcester through Springfield is not as simple.

  • AlanF

    If had not been for Hurricane Sandy and several major disruptions on the New Haven Line (train derailment and recent Con Ed feeder failure), the NEC would have had an ridership increase for the year. Sandy cost Amtrak an estimated 313K passengers in October and November 2012 because of the flooded tunnels in NYC.

  • Aaron M. Renn

    In fairness, you can take the MBTA from Worcester to South Station and catch Amtrak there.

  • Aaron M. Renn

    Glad to see ridership up, but that chart uses a deceptive non-zero based Y-axis to make the growth look steeper than it is.

  • ohnonononono

    I don’t see how growth on routes into Chicago and Philadelphia leads to the headline that this is growth propelled by “smaller cities.” They’re big cities into which there is lots of demand for intercity transit trips. This growth represents the low-hanging fruit: states have put a little money into improving services that are no-brainers. The state of inercity transit outside the Northeast Corridor is so dismal that it’s easy to post high percentage gains since the numbers are modest. We’ve allowed private bus operators like Megabus to run circles around Amtrak in meeting demand.

  • Anonymous

    While much of the patronage on the Northeast Corridor has a large city on both ends of the, most of the patronage on the corridors you are describing have a smaller city one one or both ends of the trip.

  • Nathanael

    The growth is in the traffic from “smaller” cities (Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Rochester, Buffalo) to the metropolises like Chicago, Philadelphia and NY.

    “Smaller” is a relative term here; these are pretty-good-sized cities. We have such poor rail service in the US that even pretty-good-sized cities haven’t got much rail service. Don’t be misled by the word “smaller”; these are medium-sized cities, not small cities.

  • Nathanael

    It’s really a 1950s-1960s mindset, FWIW. Those people will age out of office sooner rather than later…

  • decisivemoment

    But it also fails to go back to 1971 and Amtrak’s creation, thereby masking the sharp improvement in the underlying TREND of rail ridership. If you look at the broad sweep of time, you see Amtrak stuck in a rut in the 1980s and 1990s, but a major shift in 2002-2003 into growth mode which has continued unabated. Perhaps it would also be good to overlay rolling stock availability, and you’d see that the only thing putting the brakes on Amtrak now is lack of equipment to carry even more.

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