Why Illinois is running an extra helping of Thanksgiving trains this year, but Michigan isn’t

A Pere Marquette train, funded by the state of Michigan, arrive in St. Jospeph. Photo: Igor Studenkov
A Pere Marquette train, funded by the state of Michigan, arrive in St. Jospeph. Photo: Igor Studenkov

Thanksgiving week is usually Amtrak’s busiest in terms of ridership, so the railroad tends to increase service to meet demand, adding capacity and, in many states, adding extra trains. But this year, riders heading from Chicago to Michigan will have fewer options than they had in the past seven years.

Most of the routes that use Chicago’s Union Station are state-supported routes — medium distance routes that are largely funded by the local departments of transportation. That means the service levels depend on how much money each state is willing to pay.

For the past few Thanksgivings, both the Illinois Department of Transportation and the Michigan Department of Transportation ran extra trains. But while IDOT is keeping things the same this year, MDOT isn’t shelling out the money for the extra runs, choosing instead to simply add cars to the regularly scheduled trains. The MDOT spokesperson said they wanted to focus the money where the demand is. And while this year Amtrak riders on all Midwestern routes will benefit from longer trains and more available seats, Michigan riders will lose some flexibility in the process.

Amtrak’s Thanksgiving week ridership has been rising every year recently, going up from 751,000 riders in 2015 to 760,755 riders in 2016,  777,000 riders in 2017, and 846,000 riders in 2018.

In the past, Amtrak and IDOT tended to add trains on the Wednesday and Sunday of Thanksgiving for the Lincoln Service, Carl Sandburg and Illinois Zephyr routes. The Carl Sandburg and Illinois Zephyr routes both run between Chicago and Quincy, stopping at several cities in western Illinois. They make two total trips in each direction — one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The Lincoln Service route runs between Chicago and St. Louis, making stops in at, among other places, Joliet,  Bloomington-Normal and Springfield. The Lincoln Service normally makes four trips in each direction – two in the morning, one in the afternoon and one in the evening.

During Thanksgiving week, Amtrak and IDOT usually added a midday trip in each direction for the Carl Sandburg and the Illinois Zephyr, as while adding an extra Lincoln Service train that goes from Chicago to Bloomingdale-Normal in the mid-morning and returns to Chicago in the mid-afternoon.

Meanwhile, Amtrak and MDOT usually increase service on the Wolverine route on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, and on the Pere Marquette route on Wednesdays and Sundays, The former runs between Chicago, Detroit, and Dearborn, Michigan,  while the latter runs between Chicago and Grand Rapids, stopping in the southwest Michigan cities of St. Joseph, Bangor and Holland. The Wolverine usually make three trips in each direction, while the Pere Marquette only makes one trip in each direction, with the trains arriving in Chicago in the morning and returning to Grand Rapids in the evening. During Thanksgiving week, Amtrak and MDOT add an extra train between Chicago and Ann Arbor that leaves in the morning and returns in the evening. And, after dropping passengers off at Chicago, the Pere Marquette made an extra trip as far as Holland, leaving Chicago in the morning and returning in the evening.

But while Illinois Thanksgiving service will operate the same way as before, MDOT is doing away with extra trains. Department spokesperson Michael Frezel explained that it made more fiscal sense to add extra cars throughout the week. This was a business decision that was made to add extra capacity on the days throughout Thanksgiving week and not just on Wednesday and Sunday, as was done with the extra trains,” he said. “We also found that ridership was not particularly strong on those extra trains.”

Frezel also said that many riders “begin their Thanksgiving holiday travels earlier in the week,” so it made sense to increase capacity on other days. Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari added that, over the last decade, many colleges have been giving their students the entire week off instead of starting the break on Wednesday.  “The busiest day now is no longer the Wednesday before Thanksgiving — it’s the Sunday after,” he added.

Magliari didn’t have a breakdown of Thanksgiving ridership by route handy, so I can’t compare the ridership on Illinois’ and Michigan’s extra trains. During my own Thanksgiving travels to Michigan, I’ve noticed that some cars on the extra Pere Marquette trains were empty, but I have no idea how that compares to the regular trains. However, one time when I headed back to Chicago from St. Joseph on Thanksgiving week, I overheard a rider asking a conductor whether Amtrak could add extra trains more often, only to be told that the ridership didn’t justify it.

But at the same time, it wasn’t as if the extra trains were completely empty. So we are left with the question: Do Illinois’ extra trains get more riders than Michigan’s, or is Illinois simply more willing to pay for them?

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