Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

Amtrak ridership up, regional transit options beginning to improve

23. June 2008 • Matt Hampel
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A recent article in the New York Times says that Amtrak’s capacity is quickly being reached, and it will be difficult for the corporation to increase service:

Today Amtrak has 632 usable rail cars, and dozens more are worn out or damaged but could be reconditioned and put into service at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars each.

Writing specifications for bids, picking a vendor and waiting for delivery takes years, even if the money is in hand.

Use of Ann Arbor’s Amtrak service has been climbing heavily over the last couple of years. Data for 2008 isn’t readily available, but Richard Murphy produced this graph of Amtrak ridership out of ARB from 1994 to 2007 with Department of Transportation data:

Several years ago, Amtrak installed new high-speed switches on the route to Chicago. But service to Detroit is still spotty and inconvenient (the earliest trains from Ann Arbor arrive in Detroit at 3pm).

Plans for efficient lines from Ann Arbor to Detroit and Howell are progressing apace. Service to Detroit, possibly using Amtrak cars, is expected by early 2010. And the AATA’s Chelsea/A2 commuter service is a month into its 2-year pilot program.



  1. I’ve never tried using Amtrak for anything like a daily commute, but I usually look into it as an alterative to flying for any longer trip. It’s slower (two nights to get to the west coast, one to the east). The cost (in coach) tends to be comparable to flying. Coach means spending a night in a chair, though they’re roomier and more comfortable than anything you’d get on a plane or bus. You can also get up and walk around, and it’s pleasant to be able to have a drink in one of the second-floor observation lounges the superliners have and watch the scenery go by.

    The scenery is particularly dramatic on the trains that cross the mountains or go up the west coast. Everybody should try one of those trains at least once.


       —Bruce Fields    Jun. 24 '08 - 02:51PM    #
  2. I’ve done the Ann Arbor-Chicago route probably 30 times each way in the last 2 years and I wouldn’t consider driving or flying that route if I had the choice — Amtrak is so much more timely, comfortable, and affordable than either one, even considering the delays for freight traffic.


       —Dale    Jun. 24 '08 - 04:31PM    #
  3. Matt,

    this is a good example of the old Mark twain adage about statistics.

    You could look at these same numbers and write that after a surge beginning in 2002, Amtrak ridership out of Ann Arbor has plateaued.

    Did Richard Murphy provide any insight as to the why of the data? I wonder if the 2007 plateau was related to the Broadway bridge construction, which made going down there more of a pain.

    Fred

    Cheers,

    Fred


       —Fred Zimmerman    Jun. 24 '08 - 06:38PM    #
  4. “You could look at these same numbers and write that after a surge beginning in 2002, Amtrak ridership out of Ann Arbor has plateaued.”

    I don’t see where you’re disagreeing with Matt.

    “I wonder if the 2007 plateau was related to the Broadway bridge construction, which made going down there more of a pain.”

    Wasn’t the major Broadway Bridge construction finished in 2004? Or are you thinking of something different?


       —Bruce Fields    Jun. 24 '08 - 07:25PM    #
  5. I wonder if the plateau is a sign of Amtrak reaching the limits of its capacity? I’ve heard that many trains, especially at popular travel times, run full.


       —John Q.    Jun. 24 '08 - 09:44PM    #
  6. I’ll attest to that for the Ann Arbor-Chicago line. Morning and evening runs are usually full or nearly so for about half the trip. I gather it is difficult to add too many new cars because of platform lengths and such issues in addition to not having enough money.


       —Dale    Jun. 25 '08 - 02:14PM    #
  7. Nancy Shore writes on the getDowntown blog that the number of bikes carried on the bus in May has increased by 18% (about 500) in a year.


       —MattH    Jun. 25 '08 - 02:56PM    #
  8. Fred –

    I just copied the numbers from MDOT, as the note at the bottom of the graph shows; I used as many years as they had available online, but I understand that the 2005, 2006, and 2007 totals were all “highest year ever” ridership numbers.

    I’d hesitate to make claims that ridership has “plateaued” based on those numbers. 2 points do not a trend make – I’d at least want to see what the 2008 number looks like. Regardless, though, there was a big dip there for a while and then a strong rebound that surpassed previous totals. I don’t know enough about the service to say why that was.

    I know that the Broadway Bridges project was something like 2003-2004, in the middle of the uptick – I could agree that it may have made access to the station more difficult, dampening those years’ numbers a bit. It could also be that the bridge project brightened up the area enough to contribute to the continuing climb, as people felt more comfortable going down to the station.

    Purely speculative – as others have mentioned, it could be that the ridership is approaching a ceiling. Friends I’ve talked to who moved to Chicago say that you have to buy tickets months ahead to get tickets around holidays, because the trains are full. They always ask, “Why doesn’t Amtrak just add more cars?” – and it may be that the article Matt found answers that question.


       —Murph.    Jun. 25 '08 - 04:07PM    #
  9. Note also today’s article int he News, Rising gas prices boost ridership [for AATA]

    AATA is reporting average weekday ridership up 7-8% in April and May compared to last year, including non-UM (paying) ridership up 9% from 1st quarter 2007 to 1st quarter 2008. Not bad. I’d be interested in seeing some comment from them on capacity limits. The last half dozen rides I’ve taken on AATA have been at about seating limits (offpeak) or crowded standing room only (onpeak).


       —Murph.    Jun. 25 '08 - 04:11PM    #
  10. Thanks for this additional info, it does help the data make more sense. In a way, it’s more alarming that the story is “Amtrak has reached the limits of its capacity” because as Dale notes it’s going to be tough to make infrastructure enhancements given the history of disinvestment in rail.

    Personally, I wish there was a direct route to Washington, DC — I travel there every month and and an overnight would be an appealing option.


       —Fred Zimmerman    Jun. 26 '08 - 08:11PM    #
  11. To be perfectly honest, it’s news to me that the Broadway Bridge project was completed in 2003-2004! I would have guessed (and did) that it was more like 2007.

    A charitable interpretation of my obliviousness is that this illustrates how long a negative “halo” can be created by these major projects.


       —Fred Zimmerman    Jun. 26 '08 - 08:15PM    #
  12. I’ve taken Amtrak to DC lots of times. You take an 8:50pm train that arrives in Toledo at 11, then catch the Capitol Limited at midnight, which arrives in Union Station at 2pm the next day.

    Of course if that midnight train’s a couple hours late, it can be a drag. And the return trip has you arriving in Toledo at 5am. The alternative is to take the Wolverine and catch the Capitol Limited where it originates in Chicago, but then you end up having to leave Ann Arbor in the morning.

    So, yeah, a direct route would be nice.

    But the Capitol Limited route (through Pennsylvania, Cumberland, Harper’s Ferry, etc.) is really nice. Definitely worth trying at least once if you haven’t before.

    I’ve usually found cost is a little cheaper than the plane (but of course that depends on when you buy the tickets and how expensive the trip to the airport is).

    Union Station, of course, is right in downtown DC, is also a metro station, and has a good food court…. And for me the Ann Arbor station is halfway between home and work (and an easy walk from either).


       —Bruce Fields    Jun. 26 '08 - 08:54PM    #
  13. “You take an 8:50pm train that arrives in Toledo at 11”

    Err, sorry, that should have been: “an 8:50pm BUS”.


       —Bruce Fields    Jun. 27 '08 - 03:27AM    #
  14. The 850p bus goes via Dearborn and Detroit, so it isn’t particularly quick or efficient, but it does work.

    I drove to Toledo once for that train (and then helpfully left my keys in DC, which was the wrong thing to do).


       —Edward Vielmetti    Jun. 27 '08 - 04:14PM    #
  15. So, wouldn’t it be a lot more convenient to drive overnight? 10 hours or so, you leave at noon and arrive at a hotel in time to check in for a decent night’s sleep.


       —Fred Zimmerman    Jun. 27 '08 - 05:52PM    #
  16. I’ve done the overnight from Toledo to NYC and back (Lake Shore Limited?) a few times. It works, but it’s hardly convenient.

    This is largely – in my perception – a problem with the limits on operational funding, track rights, and rolling stock that Amtrak has to deal with. To make the best of their limited resources – and in the name of maintaining “lifeline” connectivity to the largest amount of territory – most of the system is on a hub-and-spoke model focused on the 2-4pm scramble in Chicago. (Chicago, of course, due to history as much as anything else.)

    This works great for going between here and anywhere to the west (or any trip between points on opposite sides of Chicago) but it breaks down as your endpoints get closer together, as measured angularly.

    Providing a multi-hub network with high connectivity between city-pairs 6-10 hours apart would be much more conducive to the business-schedule travel that Fred Z. discusses. Get on board, and climb into your sleeper cubby, late in the evening, and wake up in your destination city – all of a sudden, train travel compares more closely to a flight+hotel room pair rather than a long car trip.

    But I don’t run Amtrak. Oh well.


       —Murph    Jun. 27 '08 - 06:12PM    #
  17. “So, wouldn’t it be a lot more convenient to drive overnight? 10 hours or so, you leave at noon and arrive at a hotel in time to check in for a decent night’s sleep.”

    Yeah, I’ve done that before too. It’s pleasant enough if it’s done in two stretches and there’s something to listen to, though for me it’s still 10 hours too long of staring at the road. So of the three modes I’ve tried for that trip (plane, train, automobile), I still pick the train when I’ve got the chance.

    But I don’t do it for convenience. I do it because sitting on the train just makes me happy. I may be nuts.

    Also, it might lose the magic if I really had to do it frequently. I don’t know.


       —Bruce Fields    Jun. 27 '08 - 07:17PM    #
  18. Fred asked “wouldn’t it be a lot more convenient to drive overnight?”

    For me, I really like being able to sit back, read, sleep, do some work, and enjoy the scenery. I can’t do that in a car as well as I can on the train.


       —Chuck Warpehoski    Jun. 27 '08 - 07:35PM    #
  19. We always take the train to Chicago. It is easy, cheap, nice seats, you can walk around, you can eat, and since it gets you right downtown within four or five hours, it totally trumps flying or driving, which are way more expensive, more of a pain, and take about the same time. The last time we came back from Chicago, an airline pilot from Kalamazoo was with us. He said he much preferred the train for these short jaunts because it was more reliable than the airlines. Once you are in Chicago, public transportation is easy, or if you are a Zipcar member, you can use any of the Zipcars in Chicago.

    For the last few years, we have taken the train to Denver and I can’t foresee ever doing anything else if we can help it. You leave Ann Arbor at 8:30 in the morning and arrive in Denver about 8:00 the next morning. We get a sleeper car, take a bottle of wine and are wined and dined all the way and tucked into bed at night. It takes longer than flying, but because it is just the one day, it really doesn’t eat into a vacation any more than a stressful day of traveling, and it is SO much more relaxing. It is as if you start your vacation the minute you step on the train.

    This year we are trying to go East in part on the train. Which, as noted, is harder. We are driving down to Toledo to catch the 3:45 AM train from Chicago to Albany, then picking up a rental car in Albany for the rest of our trip. So it will definitely be more of a pain, but interesting to try. We have met a lot of really nice people and had really great experiences on the trains. We have learned not to relax more and not expect them to be exactly on time. But Amtrak has always taken good care of us if the train is late (put us up in a swank hotel Chicago, paid for meals, paid for taxi rides) so I have no complaints. Airlines are late too, and they treat you like a criminal. I’ll stick with Amtrak!

    To me the worst part about taking the train is the god-awful Amtrak station in Ann Arbor and the lack of taxi or bus service here at the station. Without question, wherever we have traveled by train, the only bad part has been trying to figure out the last two miles home. Hopefully Ann Arbor will do something about that in the future.


       —Juliew    Jun. 27 '08 - 07:57PM    #
  20. For the last year or so, there has always been a line of taxis waiting at the AA station.

    Julie, I assume you meant “We have learned to relax” (instead of “not to”). Although, portable media players and yelling kids do indeed keep me on edge on some trips.


       —MattH    Jun. 27 '08 - 08:47PM    #
  21. “For the last year or so, there has always been a line of taxis waiting at the AA station. “

    The last time I needed one, I found they were all waiting for somebody else. I guess people must call ahead for a cab when they get close to the station? Or maybe I was just unlucky.

    By coincidence I did the Ann Arbor to Denver round-trip twice this year. The second time when I boarded in Denver the attendant said “hey! Weren’t you just here?” Turns out that if you stay in Denver three nights then you wind up returning on the same train you arrived on (since it takes one night each way out to the west coast and stays overnight in Emeryville).

    My only complaint about that trip is that the scenery between Chicago and Denver is a little dull.


       —Bruce Fields    Jun. 27 '08 - 09:00PM    #
  22. Julie, I assume you meant “We have learned to relax” (instead of “not to”).
    Hee, yeah, that.

    I guess people must call ahead for a cab when they get close to the station?
    Whenever we try to call before we get there, the cab companies just bitch us out and say they won’t take a job until the train is actually at the station. I think people just lie and say they are at the station (which I will do next time) in order to get a cab there. We have never seen a cab just waiting for a general ride—they are always already spoken for. Unless it has changed recently, there isn’t even a taxi stand at the train station so they actually aren’t allowed to wait.

    Bruce, if you ever have an extra day, go on to Glenwood Springs and then back to Denver, the scenery gets amazing in a hurry and it isn’t much more money. I kind of like the plains view, but I wouldn’t want to do it more than once a year or so.


       —Juliew    Jun. 27 '08 - 09:47PM    #
  23. “Bruce, if you ever have an extra day, go on to Glenwood Springs and then back to Denver”

    Thanks for the suggestion, yeah, I don’t think I’ve done that before, and I’d like to! I’ve taken that route in the other direction, but the eastbound train arrives in Denver after dark. I guess the westbound train must go up into the mountains early in the morning, which sounds fun.


       —Bruce Fields    Jun. 27 '08 - 10:09PM    #
  24. “To me the worst part about taking the train is the god-awful Amtrak station in Ann Arbor and the lack of taxi or bus service here at the station. Without question, wherever we have traveled by train, the only bad part has been trying to figure out the last two miles home. Hopefully Ann Arbor will do something about that in the future.”

    I have to think that a lot of this is an “out of sight, out of mind” problem. A city like Ann Arbor should have long ago figured out how to take advantage of having a passenger rail stop in the city. But it lags far behind other cities like Kalamazoo where someone can easily get to bus or taxi service from the station. I think this is largely due to the location of the station, which is out of sight to most people, and the fact that few people probably ever see the train come through in town. In Kalamazoo, the train runs right past downtown and past Kalamazoo College and Western Michigan U. With that visibility, the city’s going to make an effort to take advantage of that service. But that doesn’t happen in Ann Arbor and I think most people just end up taking that for granted.


       —John Q.    Jun. 28 '08 - 04:09PM    #
  25. This spring I took the train to New Orleans. I was woken at 2:00am so they could get everyone off the train and onto busses somewhere in southern Illinois as the track was flooded. They bussed us for a while then got us on another train for the rest of the trip. No warning. That was one long sleepless night…with two young children.

    At least when you fly they cancel your flight and you are done. This was an experience that will, unfortunately, color my view of train travel and keep us off trains for a long time.


       —imjustsayin    Jun. 28 '08 - 08:51PM    #
  26. AATA used to serve the Amtrak station quite awhile ago, but the ridership from the station was quite low.

    Route 1 currently runs over the Broadway bridge, and there are stops off the south end of the bridge for both directions. A few hundred yards isn’t that much of a walk, but the stops aren’t readily visible from the station.

    With that being said, it appears that demand for a bus route that serves the Amtrak station has re-emerged (most likely driven by $4/gal. fuel). AATA is planning to put a route in place that will once again directly serve the Amtrak station starting sometime after September of this fall.


       —Ken A.    Jun. 29 '08 - 05:51AM    #
  27. Ken A, that is great news! I think the ridership will definitely be peaky there (the 11:30 Sunday train is probably the fullest), but maybe with the new office building nearby, it will be workable. Do the busses have any way of carrying luggage?


       —Juliew    Jun. 29 '08 - 12:33PM    #
  28. At least when you fly they cancel your flight and you are done. This was an experience that will, unfortunately, color my view of train travel and keep us off trains for a long time.

    Hmm, I actually know way more people who have been stranded at airports than I know who have been stranded anywhere by Amtrak. However, Amtrak does often have to resort to bus if there has been a derailment, or flooding, or other problems witht the track. Unlike planes though, other than flooding, weather rarely bothers trains. We’ve easily gotten to Chicago on the train at times when the planes aren’t flying and road conditions are bad.

    I think a lot of it is just that we have become accustomed to instant gratification in our travel. Air travel may not be fun, or easy, or comfortable, but it is fast and most of the time it works pretty well. I don’t think train travel is a direct substitution for air travel—it is a different sort of way to go. Any way of travel has advantages and disadvantages.

    People seem to be a little shocked with Amtrak though when they realize that it isn’t always seamless: that trains can’t just move regardless of track conditions or freight trains. In imjustsayin’s example, it seems to me that Amtrak did a great job of making sure people could continue on their way in a timely manner. I don’t know what a preferred method would have been.


       —Juliew    Jun. 29 '08 - 12:50PM    #
  29. I agree it’s ridiculous that the city hasn’t figured out how to at least get a bus down Fuller to stop in front of the station. (Having said that, there are buses of course that runs down Broadway.)

    I’ve taken the train many times. I find that on-time service has improved significantly over the last few years. However, I would not take it long-distance (any trip over 12 hours) partly due to inconvenience, partly due to past experiences of unreliability. The Ann Arbor-Chicago route is very good—it gets there roughly on time most of the time and is very convenient. Illinois routes are also excellent. But because rail travel is not currently profitable, it’s impossible to get anywhere else (such as the e. coast) due to the bizarre midnight connection in Toledo (and the fact that you have to bus or drive down there to make it at all).

    Events like imjustsayin’s bus ride are also not unusual, in my experience. To me, that’s just part of the risk of rail travel, but I understand if that’s too risky for some. Of course, all this could be changed if there were more trains and more rails. But that would take investment.


       —Young Urban Amateur    Jun. 29 '08 - 01:22PM    #
  30. This article in the NY Times discusses deep cutbacks airlines are making in service, in many cases eliminating service entirely to smaller cities like Toledo, Fort Laurderdale and San Luis Obispo. People still need to travel to and from these places, so I wonder if this spur further development of rail service.

    imjustsayin’s experience certainly must have been frustrating, but I have had far more problems, and more serious problems, with airlines than with Amtrak.


       —Tom Brandt    Jun. 29 '08 - 02:02PM    #
  31. Juliew: The route will be operated using existing transit buses. I can’t see any retrofitting of equipment unless significant demand for the service is established. I guess we’ll have to see what happens…


       —Ken A.    Jul. 2 '08 - 03:51AM    #
  32. At least when you fly they cancel your flight and you are done.

    ...Which is part of why I prefer Amtrak. With plane travel, I’ve been stranded all over the place. DFW, MSP, Newark, Montana…One flight out of JFK was canceled only after we’d been in our seats buckled up for 4 hours, (yes, complete with screaming kids right in front of us) and since we were near the back, all the available seats to our destination for the next four days had already been booked by the time we got off the plane.

    With Amtrak, they may encounter problems, but they don’t just cancel the trip – they get you there. It may be later than you expected, or by a different mode, but they will get you there. I consider that a huge benefit over plane travel. I suppose this is just a difference in attitude – imjustsayin wants to get there his way or not at all – never mind, come back tomorrow. I’m more concerned with ending up where I want to be, and willing to tolerate a change in plans to do it.

    (Added bonus, I’ve never had luggage lost or mangled on the train. I’m at about 1 in 3 for plane trips.)


       —Murph    Jul. 2 '08 - 11:48AM    #
  33. Look, I want to like trains. I really do. That’s why I took the trip to New Orleans on a train that took several days rather than the couple of hours it would have taken on a plane. No cost difference. On the way back I had no such trouble. I had done the Chicago trip on the train several times without trouble and thought I’d try a longer trip.

    Perhaps I’ve just had good luck but I have had no such troubles on airplanes, and I fly a LOT (Northwest Gold Elite for the past 10 years). I’ve had flights cancelled but have never been “stranded”. Never had luggage lost either. Even on several 3-leg flights.

    In my view trains are the way to go if getting there is the fun of it, you have all the time in the world, or you are an professional man of leisure. Planes are for folks who want to get there.


       —imjustsayin    Jul. 2 '08 - 05:51PM    #
  34. I fly about eight times a year, and I’ve noticed the experience gets worse and worse every year. Damaged luggage, lost luggage, being stranded for 1-2 days, being stuck on the airplane on the ground for hours, having the airline not fully book my new ticket after a flight had been canceled, resulting in a wasted 75 mile airport trip and a delay of a day, being crammed onto tiny regional jets for flights more than 3 1/2 hours long…. Not that the Ann Arbor-Chicago train didn’t routinely run an hour late when I used to ride it, but it still wasn’t nearly as bad as flying. Unfortunately, I just don’t have enough vacation time to travel by train, so I’m stuck flying.


       —KEF    Jul. 3 '08 - 02:20AM    #
  35. It sounds like we all agree that a speedy, reliable train service with more connections would be a good thing. Unfortunately, outside the few corridors it supports well, Amtrak is nothing like that. My parents tried to take Amtrak from Chicago to New Orleans once during the summer, they gave up in the middle of a two-day stoppage in Mississippi in 102 degeand rented a car.

    Maybe the way to look at this is to ask, why does the airline industry exist in its current form? It is heavily regulated, receives massive indirect subsidies (Boeing/Airbus/defense), has a massive carbon footprint, performs horribly in a business sense, and yet (therefore) delivers an increasingly Brezhnevian experience.


       —Fred Zimmerman    Jul. 3 '08 - 01:38PM    #
  36. Thanks for all of your great comments. This is a great conversation.

    I do think the real challenge with the Amtrak is not that it might be late every once and awhile, but that it just takes so long to get to certain places. It’s the same issue that sometimes exists with the buses. If you drive from Ann Arbor to Ypsi, it takes about 25 minutes. If you take the bus, it can take up to an hour if you take a bus downtown and then to Ypsi.

    As someone with family in DC, I’ve never taken the train because of the time issue. It’s a 40 minute drive or Michigan Flyer ride to DTW, then a 1hr 10 minute flight to DC, then either an hour Metro or car ride to where my mom lives. So we are looking at about 3 hours travel time tops. By car, it takes about 8 hours. But by Amtrak, it’s about 16 hours. So there is a really extreme difference.

    Up until gas prices flew through the roof, people generally valued convenience and time over cost when it came to transportation. That’s obviously changing. But there has got to be a way to tighten up some of the Amtrak trips. It will be interesting to see if our pace of life slows down a bit in the new era of high gas. Maybe it will become easier to take the time needed to use sustainable transportation because that’s just what is done. Sounds good to me.


       —Nancy Shore    Jul. 3 '08 - 06:55PM    #
  37. “By car, it takes about 8 hours. But by Amtrak, it’s about 16 hours. So there is a really extreme difference.”

    I would be interested to see how the passengers trains of the past compared when they were the flagships of the railroad operations. Short of high-speed rail, which we’ll likely never see in our lifetime between Detroit and Washington DC due to the topography, rail should at least be competitive with car travel. Until that happens, trains will continue to be relegated to third class travel status.


       —John Q.    Jul. 3 '08 - 10:14PM    #