State of U.S. Passenger Rail – Iowa

Train ridership in Iowa has risen 21% from 2003 to 2014. Let’s take a look at the individual station-by-station ridership trends to gain a more full understanding of the growth. But first, let’s review the configuration of railroad stations and lines in the state.

Iowa has six passenger stations, all served by two Amtrak long-distance routes. Running east to west across the southern part of the state, Amtrak’s California Zephyr makes five stops in Iowa en route between Chicago and Emeryville, Calif. The stations in Iowa are Burlington, Creston, Mount Pleasant, Osceola and Ottumwa. In addition, in the southeast corner of the state, Amtrak’s Southwest Chief stops in Fort Madison en route between Chicago and Los Angeles.

Iowa is a state where all of the stations have relatively similar ridership levels. This graph shows the state’s ridership by year, broken out by station. Ridership clearly built up to a peak in 2010 before dipping in 2011 and holding steady since then. I am not sure of the cause of that, but it affected all of the stations in Iowa.

The busiest station is Osceola, which is a short drive on I-35 to Des Moines and had a ridership of nearly 14,000 people in 2014. I got off at this station in 2002 to do RAGBRAI XXX, and I was the only member of my party to make it on time, thanks to weather-related flight cancellations in the New York area airports. Fortunately I met another RAGBRAI participant on the train, and she let me join her group for the van ride up to Des Moines. The least busy station is Creston, in the rural southwest part of the state, which had a ridership of nearly 7,000 people in 2014, or half of Osceola.

Next, let’s look at some of the growth rates over the years.

The fastest-growing station over this time period is Burlington, on the banks of the Mississippi, which is the city that lends its name as the “B” in BNSF Railway (for Burlington Northern Santa Fe), one of our nation’s major freight railroads. Ridership was 5,576 in 2003, and that grew to 8,813 in 2014, an increase of 58%. Creston, Mount Pleasant, Osceola and Ottumwa all grew by about 20% over the same time frame, while Fort Madison, not far from Burlington, declined by 7%, posting a ridership of 6,986 in 2014, down from 7,530 in 2003. RAGBRAI XLI ended in Fort Madison in 2013, and my wife, father and I took the train from Fort Madison a day after dipping our bike wheels in the mighty Mississippi. It was the perfect way to unwind after the rigorous bike tour.

This pie chart shows the same information, highlighting the general equality of ridership between all of Iowa’s stations.

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