State of U.S. Passenger Rail – Minnesota

Thanks to the launch of a new regional passenger railroad serving Minneapolis and its suburbs, Minnesota railroad ridership is up markedly over the past 12 years. However, the state’s Amtrak ridership is down 10.6%, one of only five states to lose ridership over that time period. Amtrak has one route through Minnesota, the Empire Builder, and the decline in ridership is attributable almost entirely to declines at the St. Paul’s Midway station, which contrary to national trends lost 20% of its ridership from 2003 to 2014, sinking to 94,077 passenger arrivals and departures in 2014, down from 116,967 in 2003, and a high of 147,791 as recently as 2008. Perhaps there is hope that St. Paul area will see an uptick because train service was shifted back to the more grand downtown hub in St. Paul, Union Depot.

Despite the declinining ridership at St. Paul, it’s still by far Amtrak’s busiest station in the state. Let’s take a look at the numbers. This first chart shows the ridership at all of the state’s station.

Now let’s eliminate St. Paul from the chart and look at the quieter stations to see some of the more localized trends along the Empire Builder in Minnesota.

As you can see, ridership at all of the stations has declined in the last few years, mirroring declines on the Empire Builder overall as its route has become congested with a huge volume of oil trains from North Dakota’s oil shale operations. Nevertheless, ridership at five of these stations is up since 2003. Detroit Lakes is up 51%, Winona is up 30% and Staples is up 20%. St. Cloud is down 2%, and Red Wing is down 11%. This next chart shows the same information as the first chart, but in stacked column form.

Finally, here’s a look at the same information in a pie chart showing the relative volumes of passengers at Minnesota’s stations.

I started this post by noting that despite Minnesota’s Amtrak ridership decline, the state’s overall passenger railroad ridership is undoubtedly up over the timeframe. That’s because while Amtrak is America’s railroad, it isn’t America’s only railroad, and neither is it the State of Minnesota’s only railroad carrying passengers. The other is the Northstar Line, which opened for business on November 16, 2009, with service between Minneapolis and six suburban stations. Here we see that it’s ridership has held remarkably steady since its inauguration.

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