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Amtrak’s Chicago-Milwaukee “Hiawatha” trains break ridership records for 12th straight month

MADISON, Wis. (Dec. 16)—Amtrak’s Chicago-Milwaukee “Hiawatha” trains carried a record 48,369 passengers in November--16 per cent more than in November, 2004--and will wind up 2005 with a record-breaking annual ridership total of more than half a million, according to transportation sources.

The record ridership growth is attributed to higher driving costs, an aggressive marketing campaign for the seven daily round trips, and the fact that the line has the best on-time performance of any Amtrak route in the nation.

“It really shows the role passenger rail can play when there is high frequency and high reliability in the service,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “That’s the key: As you build up frequencies ridership explodes exponentially.”

Ridership has grown by 16% over 2004 when the service hauled a then record 470,186 passengers. It is estimated that the 500,000th passenger boarded on Sunday, December 4, 2005, and that total ridership for this calendar year will reach 530,000.

Szabo said the success of the “Hiawatha” trains, which are sponsored jointly by the states of Illinois and Wisconsin, is being repeated on the three intrastate routes supported solely by the state of Illinois—Chicago-Galesburg-Quincy, Chicago-Springfield-St. Louis, and Chicago-Champaign-Carbondale.

“All three Illinois routes are growing nearly as fast as the ‘Hiawathas’—in the double digits,” Szabo said.

“That’s why our union is joining with other public advocacy groups to ask Governor Blagojevich and the General Assembly to start budgeting for expansion of Illinois’ state-supported passenger-train program,” he said. “The existing frequencies are being overwhelmed by ridership and will have to be supplemented with additional trains in order to carry all the people who want to travel.

“We want to see meaningful levels of frequencies in our downstate trains,” said Szabo, “the kind of meaningful service levels the Downstate communities are looking for.” “Their mayors and their chambers of commerce are demanding passenger-rail service because they have learned they cannot attract industrial development without reliable, fast, all-weather transportation to Chicago.

“Some of Illinois’ most promising young people have to emigrate to bigger cities to get decent jobs because their home towns are failing to develop opportunities for them,” Szabo said. “It’s a big problem and it’s a statewide problem. The Interstate highway system is a great resource, but it is not providing the mobility Illinois requires for sustained economic growth.”

Szabo said one reason the “Hiawatha” service has been growing so strongly is that Monday through Saturday it offers seven frequencies in each direction over its 86-mile route.

“Those seven trains give people in Chicago and Milwaukee a real set of choices,” he said. “They can pretty much go whenever they please and return whenever they please, so they just leave the car at home and take the train. The formula is successful. Now it’s time for Illinois to put it into practice and start ramping up the frequencies on our own intrastate train network.”

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