MDOT ridership statistics show rail has seen an increased annual ridership of 78% since 2002. University students compose a large and influential percentage of passenger rail users in the state of Michigan. A 2009 University of Michigan study for MDOT revealed 14% of all Michigan passengers were university students, and an additional 9% were other students.
Overwhelmingly, rail users from the U-M study were young: one of every three respondents was under 25, and more than half of all respondents were under 35. The Ann Arbor News highlighted Ann Arbor as the busiest stop on the Wolverine line, supported surely by the travel of U-M students. Nationally, Joseph Szabo, administrator of the Federal Railroad Association, wrote in his written statement to the Senate Surface Transportation Subcommittee on June 3rd, that “studies show the trend away from driving is being led by youth” citing that between 2001 and 2009, 16 to 34 year olds decreased their average number of vehicle-miles traveled by 23 percent and increased their passenger miles traveled on trains and buses by 40 percent.
Michigan’s high-traffic passenger rail lines pass through multiple college campuses. The Blue Water line travels from Port Huron to Chicago and passes through Michigan State University’s campus. The Wolverine line extends from Detroit to Chicago with a stop in Ann Arbor, and Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Nick Stratta, a senior at Michigan State, has been using the Blue Water Line to and from his home in Chicago for the past four years. He recognizes the “ease of use and convenience” of rail travel for a student, claiming, “You get on the train in the morning and for four hours you can basically do whatever you want like eat, sleep, listen to music, or do work without ever having to worry about ‘the road.’ It allows for a relaxing and for the most part enjoyable experience.”
An enjoyable passenger experience is a focus of MDOT and Amtrak as they make improvements this summer to these popular routes. MDOT’s Michigan State Rail Plan, outlines a plan for the future extension of passenger rail across the state, but Michael Frezell of MDOT Rail also addresses the desire to make rail “more competitive to cars in the long run” with “improved timeliness” and free wireless internet access so passengers can be more productive than if they were just sitting in traffic. These improvements focus on the benefits that many students, like Nick, have already realized about using passenger rail. While changes are being made this summer, Amtrak has added increased service on Sunday and Monday to the Blue Water and Wolverine Lines.
Another benefit of rail travel for students is cost. A Saturday afternoon coach ticket from Ann Arbor to Chicago can cost as low as $34.00. Considering the price of gas, outrageous parking rates and the hassle of traffic, the four hour train ride seems like a bargain. Similarly a ticket from Ann Arbor to Kalamazoo can cost as little as $23.00. This adds another convenient option for intercampus travel, for students who want to see their friends at another college for the weekend. The Wolverine line connects the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor with Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. For Nick the “obvious benefit” is cost: “Tickets for the train can range anywhere from $25 to $70 each while gas prices going one way can get into the hundreds.”
Chicago attracts many recent graduates from Michigan Universities, but trains can be an important lifeline to bring these alumni back into the state. The Chicago area hosts a population of over 25,000 MSU alumni. Prima Civitas, a non-profit interested in community building in the state, teamed up with MSU affiliates to designate a special Spartan car on the Blue Water Line. Decorated in green and white, the initiative began in 2012 as close to 60 passengers took the train into East Lansing, with tickets to a Spartan football game included in the price of a ride. The Spartan Line Initiative addresses the desire of many alumni to come back for big events in East Lansing.
Growth in statewide passenger rail can help encourage millennials to stay in Michigan, while increased regional rail options can help bring young adults back into the state. The rate at which those under 35 choose passenger rail for long trips proves it is a viable alternative to the single passenger automobile with an added economic benefit to the state overall.
Written by: Elle Getschman, Trans4M Intern