Amtrak Hiawatha line hits record ridership in 2019 fiscal year

4.5% increase over previous year

The Amtrak Hiawatha train at Milwaukee Intermodal Station. (Courtesy: WisDOT)

The Milwaukee-to-Chicago Amtrak Hiawatha passenger service saw a 4.5% uptick in ridership in fiscal year 2019 versus the previous year, Amtrak officials announced Friday.

Officials with Amtrak and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation said the record numbers indicate the Hiawatha can only stand to benefit from efforts to increase the quantity of seats on each trip and the number of daily round trips.

The Hiawatha line recorded more than 882,000 riders, which set a new ridership record and showed an increase from the roughly 844,000 in fiscal year 2018. This is according to preliminary results for the year, which runs from the beginning of October through the end of September.

The increase continues Hiawatha’s trend of setting records in ridership numbers. For instance, WisDOT announced earlier this year the service set an all-time record in calendar year 2018 of more than 858,000 passengers, a 3.6% increase from 2017.

Hiawatha’s increased ridership was all done without adding to the existing seven daily round trips, said Marc Magliari, Amtrak spokesman. WisDOT and its counterpart in Illinois are crafting plans that would allow for 10 daily round trips, which officials say is clearly needed based on ridership levels.

“Imagine how many people we could carry between the two cities if we also expand those round trips,” Magliari said.

Arun Rao, passenger rail manager for WisDOT, said the Hiawatha service is especially in need of more capacity during the morning and evening commutes.

“We see overcapacity conditions on peak demand, and the demand is greater than the supply on most of those peak trains,” he said.

WisDOT and the Illinois Department of Transportation previously had identified a series of rail-improvement projects — with a roughly $200 million overall price tag — that would have allows Hiawatha to grow to 10 daily trips. However, those plans are being retooled after IDOT announced it would no long support two of those projects.

Rao said the project team is still working to identify alternative projects that would allow for three additional round trips. He said it’s too early to say what the alternative plan may consist of, but acknowledged it could call for additional improvements on the Wisconsin side.

Currently, the state is pursuing three projects to allow for the expanded round trips: The Muskego Yard bypass project, construction of a second platform at the Milwaukee Airport Railroad Station, and specific signal and traffic-control improvements for a 1.8-mile track segment beginning at the Milwaukee Intermodal Station.

These improvement projects were discussed in detail in a BizTimes magazine cover story back in August.

Meanwhile, WisDOT expects the Hiawatha to receive new train cars over the next several years. Through two different contracts, the new cars being manufactured will add roughly 70 new seats to each trip, Rao said.

Six coach cars — those that hold passengers — will be replaced as part of an order through IDOT that, overall, will replace 88 train cars on state-sponsored Amtrak Midwest lines. Rao said the Hiawatha could see new cars from this order as soon as late 2020, but could take over a period of a couple years.

Separately, WisDOT expects to receive another six coaches as well as three cab coach cars thanks to a $25.7 million federal grant. The cab coach cars would replace the existing cab cars, which contain no passenger seats. As a result, the cab coach cars will add about 58 seats without needing to lengthen the train.

In late October, the state Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee approved the use of $13.2 million in bonding that would serve as matching funds to that grant.

Rao said WisDOT still hasn’t undetermined when exactly those new cars would be delivered. However, rough estimates are for around 2022-2023.

But even the cars currently being used are getting a newer look, thanks to an Amtrak program taht is refreshing its existing stock. Rao said this ongoing work is slated to finish by March.

“This (refresh) consists of much needed upgrading of the seating and the carpets, and a deep clean,” Rao said.

The increase in Hiawatha ridership comes the same year that Amtrak saw its best operating performance in company history. Overall, Amtrak set new records for ridership, revenue and financial performance, according to a news release.

Amtrak saw a company record of 32.5 million customer trips, a year-over-year increase of 800,000 passengers. It also reported operating losses of $29.8 million, an 82.6% improvement over the $170.6 million in losses for fiscal year 2018. It also brought in $3.3 billion in total operating revenue, a 3.6% increase from the previous year.

Amtrak has a goal to achieve operational breakeven in fiscal year 2020, according the release.

“We are growing and modernizing Amtrak,” Tony Coscia, Amtrak board chair, said in the release. “We have an industry-leading safety program and have invested billions in improving the customer experience, resulting in more people choosing Amtrak as their preferred mode of transportation. These changes have put us on track to breakeven in 2020, which would be a first in Amtrak’s history.”

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Alex Zank
Alex Zank covers commercial and residential real estate for BizTimes. Alex previously worked for Farm Equipment magazine and also covered statewide construction news at The Daily Reporter. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he studied journalism, political science and economics. Having grown up in rural western Wisconsin, Alex loves all things outdoors, including camping, hiking, four-wheeling and hunting.