Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service has record ridership

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Amtrak, the federal government’s national passenger railroad, had record ridership of 28.7 million passengers in its 2010 fiscal year, up 5.7 percent compared with the 2009 fiscal year.

The Amtrak Hiawatha Service, which serves the Chicago-to-Milwaukee corridor, also had record ridership in the 2010 fiscal year, which ended at the end of September. The Hiawatha Service had 783,060 riders in fiscal year 2010, up 6.1 percent from fiscal year 2009. The previous ridership record for the Hiawatha was in 2008, when it served 749,000 riders.

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“We provide a reliable and comfortable service at a reasonable price,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari. “What helped us in fiscal 2010 was some recovery in business travel.”

In recent years, additional cars were added to the Hiawatha trains because they had been, at times, filled to standing-room-only capacity, Magliari said. The Hiawatha Service is the ninth-most popular corridor for Amtrak.

“The good news is each time we add capacity to the trains, the cars fill up,” he said.

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The Hiawatha provides seven round-trips between Milwaukee and Chicago from Monday through Saturday and six round-trips on Sundays. A ride from downtown Milwaukee to downtown Chicago usually takes about 1.5 hours and costs $22 each way.

Amtrak reported ticket revenue of about $14.1 million for the Hiawatha Service in fiscal 2010, up 6.0 percent from fiscal 2009.

The Hiawatha Service would be extended from Milwaukee to Madison under the proposed $810 million high-speed rail project. That project has become a major issue in the governor’s election. Democrat Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett supports the high-speed rail project. Republican Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker opposes it and has pledged to stop it if elected. Walker says the state cannot afford the annual operating costs for the high-speed rail project, which are estimated at about $7.5 million, according to Cari Anne Renlund, executive assistant to state Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi.

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However, both candidates have said they support continuing state subsidies for the existing Amtrak Hiawatha Service between Milwaukee and Chicago. This year, the cost to operate the Hiawatha line between Milwaukee and Chicago is $5.5 million. But the federal government pays for most of the operating costs for the Hiawatha line, and Wisconsin’s share of the operating subsidy for the Hiawatha this year is only $520,000, Renlund said. State officials hope the federal government also would pay for a significant portion of the Milwaukee-to-Madison line’s operating costs.

The other Amtrak service in Wisconsin, the Empire Builder (a long-distance service from Chicago through Wisconsin to Seattle), had ridership of 533,493 in fiscal 2010, up 3.5 percent from fiscal 2009. The Empire Builder is Amtrak’s most popular long-distance line.

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