University of Michigan graduate student Jon Bolenbaugh says he uses the Amtrak station in Ann Arbor about twice a month and prefers train travel over driving or flying.
“I’ve taken a lot of train rides actually,” he said, waiting to catch the train to Chicago on Friday afternoon on his way to see his girlfriend for the weekend.
“It’s cheaper in terms of the gas right now and also flying is a pain,” Bolenbaugh said. “I used to fly two or three years ago until they changed the policies and now it’s like you have to get basically groped to fly. It takes more time to actually get to the airport, fly and get out of the airport than it does just to drive there or take the train.”
Ann Arbor officials are welcoming news that train ridership is up throughout Michigan and say they remain hopeful high-speed rail improvements are on the way.
“Train ridership in Michigan has been going up steadily for quite a while now and this was quite a jump in the recent figures,” said Mayor John Hieftje, referring to the new Amtrak passenger counts. “I agree with those who are attributing it to the rise in gas prices.”
Amtrak saw significant growth on all three of its passenger service routes in Michigan in the first six months of the 2010-11 fiscal year, according to the Michigan Department of Transportation.
The Wolverine line that runs from Pontiac through Detroit to Chicago — with its busiest stop along the way in Ann Arbor — saw a 16.3 percent increase with 243,185 passengers from October through March. Ticket revenues went up 21 percent to $9 million.
The Pere Marquette line that runs from Grand Rapids to Chicago saw ridership increase by 6.7 percent with 48,787 passengers. Ticket revenues went up 11.7 percent to $1.5 million.
The Blue Water line that runs from Port Huron to Chicago saw ridership jump 26.2 percent with 85,823 passengers, one of the biggest increases in the nation. Ticket revenues went up 23.9 percent to $2.6 million.
Amtrak operates its Blue Water and Pere Marquette services under a contract with MDOT, but it does not receive any direct state support for the Wolverine.
Michigan is one of 15 states that provide state-supported service.
MDOT officials said it seems clear more passengers are choosing train travel for convenience and value, especially as gas prices soar. They point out the growing number of train travelers means fewer cars on congested state highways.
“I think more and more people are thinking about trains who may have not thought it was possible before, seeing it as an alternative,” Hieftje said. “It’s certainly a good alternative to going to the airport, waiting around, and going through security and everything. All of these things seem to be working together to put more people in seats on trains.”
After dropping off around 2001, ridership on all three Amtrak routes in Michigan has grown significantly over the last decade and continues to grow. The Detroit-to-Chicago corridor saw ridership plummet from 418,491 to 295,268 from 1997 to 2001, but passenger counts had ticked back up to 479,782 by last year — about a 62 percent increase over nine years.
Along the Detroit-to-Chicago corridor, a total of 69,084 people boarded Amtrak trains in Ann Arbor last year; 44,392 boarded in Kalamazoo, 40,510 in Dearborn, 33,125 in Detroit, 19,332 in Battle Creek, 16,768 in Royal Oak, 13,894 in Jackson and 10,906 in Birmingham.
“It is true that Ann Arbor continues to be the busiest stop,” Hieftje said. “People here really get it and we’re just very hopeful that the high-speed rail project will go forward, and of course that enables us to keep working with our neighbors on the commuter rail project as well.”
Federal officials announced last fall that Michigan would receive $150 million for high-speed rail improvements along the Dearborn-to-Kalamazoo portion of the tracks between Detroit and Chicago, but the state Legislature still hasn’t taken action to secure the funds. Gov. Rick Snyder also hasn’t made up his mind about putting up matching state dollars.
But Hieftje remains hopeful something will happen and that Ann Arbor, which has a new train station planned near the University of Michigan Hospital along Fuller Road, will reap the benefits. The same improvements needed to make high-speed rail happen will help move forward the planned Ann Arbor-to-Detroit commuter rail service.
“As we understand it, Michigan’s high-speed rail funds are still in place, and so the state Legislature still is working on a match for that,” Hieftje said. “I know myself and the mayors of Dearborn and Ypsilanti, we’re all very hopeful that that project is going to move along and it’ll be good for all of our cities.”