It’s regional railroad is one of the nation’s busiest, serving a catchment area that is larger, and with more stations, than any other. It has three mid-distance routes with multiple departures daily that fan out across the state. It has long-distance trains to the West Coast, the East Coast, and the Gulf Coast. Illinois is the beating heart of the country’s passenger railroad system.
And it’s been beating faster. Amtrak ridership in the state grew 76% from 2003 to 2014, with the fastest growth coming from the state’s agricultural heartland stations. Let’s take a look at some of the trends shaping rail ridership across the state.
There are three state-sponsored routes originating in Chicago’s Union Station.
- The busiest is Amtrak’s Lincoln Service, which cuts across the state diagonally to the southwest, connecting to St. Louis via Springfield, and Bloomington-Normal. The route shares tracks with Metra’s Heritage Corridor, and with Amtrak’s Texas Eagle to San Antonio (and on to Los Angeles three days a week). Average monthly ridership is up 205% from December 2003 to January 2015.
- To the south of Chicago runs Amtrak’s Illini and Saluki trains, which share tracks with Metra’s Electric District the long-distance City of New Orleans. Ridership on the Illini/Saluki route is up 196% over the same time period.
- Finally to the west of Chicago runs Amtrak’s Illinois Zephyr and Carl Sandburg, which share tracks with Metra’s BNSF Railway Line and the long distance California Zephyr to the San Francisco Bay Area and Southwest Chief to Los Angeles. Ridership on the Illinois Zephyr/Carl Sandburg route has doubled.
On October 30, 2006, all three of these routes effectively doubled in frequency. And the ridership benefits were felt immediately and have been long-lasting. Annual ridership has grown steadily as well, as seen in the chart below.
Chicago is far and away the state’s busiest station, in part because of it’s location as a hub for transfers. Following Chicago, there are Illinois has five stations that comprise a second tier in terms of ridership volume: Bloomington-Normal, Springfield, Champaign-Urbana, Carbondale, and Galesburg. Each of these stations is between 2½ and 3½ hours outside of Chicago on the regional routes except for Carbondale which is 5½. The state’s 24 remaining Amtrak stations round out the picture.
Let’s look now at the ridership growth of those “big five” regional stations.
Ridership at Bloomington-Normal has surged 252%. Champaign-Urbana is up 136%, Springfield is up 111%, Carbondale is up 105%, and Galesburg is up 74%. All together, the ridership growth at these big five stations is up 138%. But it’s actually been even higher at the smaller stations, shown in gray, where average ridership growth is up 153% over the same time frame. (For the record, ridership to or from Chicago has grown as well, by 55%.)
The highest growth rates were at rural stations. Rantoul was up 540% from 2003 to 2014, growing to 5,908 passengers a year from 923. Summit was up 360%, growing to 12,528 passengers a year, from 2,722, Gilman was up 346%, growing to 3,333 passengers per year, from 747, and so on.
This pie chart shows the relative dominance of Chicago in terms of the state’s Amtrak ridership. But it also shows that that dominance has decreased substantially over the past 12 years and ridership growth throughout the rest of the state has outpaced Chicago.
Despite growing in ridership by 55% over the timeframe, Chicago went from having 77% of Illinois’ Amtrak ridership in 2003 down to 68% in 2014. This next chart shows the same information, but breaks out the state’s stations based on route, as opposed to size.
That is an overview of statewide trends. But most of Illinois’ railroad stations are actually in the Chicagoland suburbs, where they are served by Metra, one of the nation’s busiest regional railroads. This chart shows that ridership on Metra fell like most railroads’ with the early 2000’s dot-com bust, but then rose again with the high gasoline prices of 2008-2009. Despite these fluctuations, the railroad’s ridership has essentially held steady over time, the hallmark of a mature, well-established system.