State of U.S. Passenger Rail – Utah

You might be surprised to learn that railroad ridership is booming in Utah, but it is true. The state’s Amtrak ridership has grown 63% from 2003 to 2014, making it the 16th fastest growing state in the nation over the past dozen years. But that growth is dwarfed in comparison to the huge success of FrontRunner, a new regional railroad serving the Salt Lake City area. It started service in April 2008 and has surged 148% since then. Out of the more than a half-dozen regional passenger railroads that have begun service in the United States in the last 15 years, FrontRunner is probably the biggest success story.

First, let’s turn to Amtrak, and then circle back to FrontRunner. Utah has four Amtrak stations, Green River, Helper, Provo, and Salt Lake City. All offer daily service to the San Francisco Bay Area and Chicago via Denver and other intermediate stops on the California Zephyr. As of 2014, Salt Lake City accounted for 80% of Utah’s Amtrak passengers. Provo, to the south of Salt Lake City and adjacent to a stop on FrontRunner, accounted for 10%, and Green River and Helper rounded out the rest of the state with about 5% each. This pie chart depicts the breakdown visually.

This next chart shows how the passenger volumes at each station have changed over time, relative to one another. Ridership at Salt Lake City has grown 60% to 41,367 arrivals and departures in 2014, from 25,886 in 2003. It is less obvious because of the scale of the graph, but Green River and Provo, have actually grown faster. At Green River, ridership is up 111%, to 2,770 in 2014, and Provo is up 82%, to 5,299. Helper is also up, by 35%, to 2,034 passengers in 2014.

This next chart shows the same information in stacked column form, emphasizing how the ridership at all of the stations together add up to the total state growth of 63%.

Despite Amtrak’s very healthy growth rate in Utah, the biggest story in the state is the introduction of regional railroad service in the Salt Lake City area in 2008, and its phenomenal growth since then. FrontRunner launched on April 26, 2008, with service at Salt Lake City and six additional stations. That September 29, it added a stop at Pleasant View, for a total of eight stations. After an initial wave of the curious and sightseers calmed down, ridership settled at 108,000 per month, and steadily grew to 141,000 per month by late 2012. Then on December 10, 2012, FrontRunner doubled in size, adding eight more stations toward the south of the Salt Lake City area. Average monthly ridership surged to 314,000 within one year. It has continued to grow, and stands at 371,000 as of March 2015.

For comparison purposes, in November 2009, FrontRunner had been in service for about 18 months and its average monthly ridership stood at its lowest recorded level. At that time, it ranked as the 18th busiest passenger railroad in the United States out of the 22 then operating. As the months ticked by, FrontRunner overtook Coaster (San Diego, founded in 1995), New Mexico Rail Runner Express (Albuquerque, founded in 2006), Trinity Railway Express (Dallas-Ft. Worth, founded in 1996), Sounder (Seattle, founded in 2000), the South Shore Line (Chicago to South Bend, Ind., founded in 1903), and Tri-Rail (Miami, founded in 1989), so that today it ranks as the 12th busiest passenger railroad in the country, out of a field that has grown to 26. This chart shows FrontRunner’s ridership since it began service.

As a travel note, it is possible to transfer between the California Zephyr and FrontRunner at Salt Lake City and at Provo. At Provo, there are technically two separate stations with separate platforms serving separate tracks, but all you have to do is walk across the street. The stations are right next to each other.

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