State of U.S. Passenger Rail – Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s Amtrak ridership has surged 79% over the past dozen years, making it the eighth fastest growing state in the country over that time frame. We’ll see the factors driving that growth below, but first, here’s a quick summary of the state’s passenger rail infrastructure.

Wisconsin is served by two passenger railroads, Amtrak and Metra. Amtrak has two routes serving Wisconsin, the Empire Builder, a long-distance overnight train that runs from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest, and the Hiawatha, with multiple daily departures between Milwaukee and Chicago. Even more frequent service to Chicago is available to the folks in the southeast corner of the state, where Metra has a station at Kenosha, the terminal for its Union Pacific/North Line.

Amtrak’s ridership in the state is influenced most by the Hiawatha. As of today, it has eight trains per day in each direction (seven on Sundays), compared with the Empire Builder which is just one train a day (the maximum frequency for the long-distance overnight trains). This chart shows the Hiawatha’s ridership per month.

Ridership surged with the 2008 spike in gasoline prices, but then it stayed high and even increased further. The frequency of Hiawatha train service and the popularity of Milwaukee as a destination combine to make Milwaukee the busiest Amtrak station in Wisconsin, by a large margin. This pie chart shows the breakdown.

As of 2014, Milwaukee accounted for two thirds of Wisconsin’s Amtrak ridership. The next two stations, stops on the Hiawatha but not the Empire Builder, were Milwaukee Airport, which had at 18% of the state’s riders, and Sturtevant, with 8%. The rest of the state’s stations, all on the Empire Builder but not the Hiawatha, ranged between 1% to 3%. For a sense of perspective, trying to put Metra’s stop at Kenosha on the same scale, I think it would fall just below Milwaukee Airport, which has an average daily ridership of 438 (dividing the total by 365). Kenosha’s average weekday ridership is 358, according to Wikipedia, and it would be lower on weekends. Now let’s look at a stacked column chart that shows us how these numbers add up to the state’s total ridership, and how that has changed over the years.

The growth of Wisconsin has been driven by the growth of Milwaukee, certainly, but also by the growth at Milwaukee Airport, which opened as a new station in January 2005. This next line graph shows how the stations have grown individually. Milwaukee Airport clearly stands out as a success story rise.

Every station in Wisconsin grew from 2003 to 2014, though the scale of the graph makes it hard to see the growth of some of the quieter stations. Milwaukee Airport grew 426% from its opening year, 2005, to 2014, rising from 30,415 in 2005 to 159,869 in 2014. Sturtevant grew 84%, to 70,341, up from 38,307 in 2003. Following down the line were Milwaukee, up 47%, Tomah, up 44%, Wisconsin Dells up 23%, Portage and La Crosse, each up 19%, and Columbus, up 8%.

That concludes my series on the state-by-state passenger railroad ridership trends across all 46 states that have service, and Washington, D.C. I hope you’ve enjoyed it!

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