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Passenger rail ridership continues to rise in Midwest

by Laura Kliewer ~ December 2012 ~ Stateline Midwest »
Passenger rail service in the Midwest is growing and improving, with record numbers of people taking the train and upgrades to service under way.
Amtrak ridership on “corridor” service (shorter-distance routes typically financed by states) once again saw record growth during fiscal year 2012. The number of passengers on the nine regional routes (see chart) rose to 3.16 million, an increase of 3.5 percent over the previous year and 35 percent since 2007.
Most of these routes have multiple frequencies each day, making round-trip travel more convenient. The two most popular routes, Chicago-to-Milwaukee and Chicago-to-St. Louis, now offer seven and five round-trips daily, respectively.
Since the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission began using Amtrak statistics in 2004 to look at corridor growth in the region, ridership on these routes has risen 99 percent. MIPRC, whose staff is provided by CSG Midwest, also tracks long-distance routes serving the Midwest (not financed by states).
While the number of passengers on the typically once-daily overnight service has not grown as dramatically, more than 2.6 million people rode on one of the region’s eight long-distance routes during FY 2012 — a 21 percent five-year growth rate and a 7 percent gain over the previous year. The Empire Builder service — which starts in Chicago and travels through Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota before continuing west — remains Amtrak’s most popular long-distance route; its ridership rose nearly 16 percent during the year.
The region is also seeing the first of a series of planned improvements to routes, paid for through grants from the federal High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail program.
In February, the Michigan Department of Transportation and Amtrak received approval to begin 110-mph service between Porter, Ind., and Kalamazoo, Mich., on the Chicago-Detroit and Chicago-Port Huron routes — the first at that speed outside of the Northeast Corridor. In May, Michigan also received federal approval to acquire about 135 miles of right-of-way along the route, for eventual upgrading to 110-mph speeds.
In October, Illinois gave Chicago-to-St. Louis riders a first taste of the faster service it is planning; a test run on a 15-mile stretch reached 111 mph. By 2015, about 75 percent of the route is expected to run at high speed, improving current travel times by almost an hour.
Other ongoing projects on Midwest routes include work along the St. Louis-to-Kansas City route to increase on-time performance and allow for higher speeds; completion of environmental work for proposed additional service between Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul.; a study to determine a preferred route for new service between Chicago and Omaha, Neb.; and establishing initial service between Chicago and Moline, Ill.


Laura Kliewer is director of the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission, which was formed by an interstate compact agreement in 2000 and now includes 10 member states. Illinois Rep. Elaine Nekritz serves as the commission's chair.