The southbound Illini makes its station stop in Rantoul in August 2012.
University towns tend to generate a lot of business for Amtrak and Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, is no exception.
One some days the waiting room of the Illinois Terminal, the intermodal station that serves the hometowns of the University of Illinois, overflows with passengers.
Yet in fiscal year 2015, which ended last Sept. 30, ridership from Champaign-Urbana fell for the second consecutive year.
In FY 2013, Amtrak boarded 189,940 passengers in the Twin Cities but saw that number fall to 169,221 in FY 2015. FY 2014 ridership was 179,009.
At the next stop north of Champaign, ridership has shown a slight increase in Rantoul. The ridership numbers for Rantoul have been 5, 889 (FY 2013), 6,166 (FY 2014) and 6,199 (FY 2015)
Patronage fell in many areas of the country during FY 2015 and Amtrak has been blaming falling gasoline prices as a major culprit.
“We believe, as we’ve said before, as gasoline prices go up, so does ridership, and the inverse is true,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.
He noted that parking, tolls and traffic tickets in and around Chicago have not changed.
Despite the ridership falloff, Magliari said, “we still have very strong ridership.”
In fact, Amtrak ridership remains at historic levels, with last year being the fifth-highest ridership year on record since 1979, said T.J. Blakeman, Champaign’s senior planner for economic development.
Local officials are concerned that Amtrak service may suffer cuts as a result of a budget stalemate between Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Illinois General Assembly. The two have yet to agree on a budget for the current fiscal year.
Champaign-Urbana is served by three pairs of Amtrak trains, the City of New Orleans between Chicago and New Orleans, and the state-funded Illini and Saluki between Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois.
The addition of the Saluki in 2006 provided a boost to Amtrak patronage from Champaign-Urbana, Blakeman said.
“It shows if we can continue to add service on this line, I believe we will continue to see increased ridership,” he said.
Between 2007 and 2014, Amtrak ridership in the Chicago-Carbondale corridor grew 41.6 percent.
Aside from budget uncertainty, another concern of Champaign County officials is delays.
Amtrak uses Canadian National tracks between Chicago and New Orleans and the two have sparred over freight delays.
Magliari said Amtrak has an action pending against Canadian National before regulatory authorities.
Ben LeRoy, an associate planner for the city of Champaign, thinks that bus carriers might also be siphoning away some Amtrak ridership due to the problems of delays.
LeRoy, said he takes Amtrak to conferences, but while a student at the University of Illinois he rode Greyhound because the fare was lower and the buses ran more frequently
Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing said she has left the night before a meeting in Chicago because of the possibility of delays making her late to the meeting.
“That drives away passengers if you can’t be on time. I think that’s the biggest problem, and it’s not Amtrak’s fault,” she said.
Nearly 1,000 people have signed Champaign County First’s online petition at chn.ge/1PtVaBP to support intercity rail passenger rail service on the Chicago-Carbondale corridor.
The petition has described the service as an economic engine for the state of Illinois, the University of Illinois, Eastern Illinois University and Southern Illinois University, which together constitute the I-57 Amtrak Rail Knowledge Corridor.
“Just imagine what would happen to the highways if all those people were driving,” Prushing said.
Blakeman said increased Amtrak ridership has played a role in reducing traffic congestion and parking shortages on the University of Illinois campus.
“We’ve reduced parking on campus. We’ve convinced students to bring fewer cars to campus,” he said.