MATTOON — The chance to save money on a trip and start it in a comfortable, attractive place seems to be a draw to a lot of people.
That’s actually been the case for a few years but even more so in 2012, as the total number of riders on trains at Mattoon’s Amtrak depot is on pace to break 40,000, the highest total for eight years of recordkeeping.
In 2005, there were just less than 16,000 riders using the station. That’s the year when funding first became available for the work that made the depot what it is today, noted Kim Bauer, executive director of the Coles County Historical Society, a group closely tied to the depot and its renovation.
Ridership has increased each year since then, and Bauer said he thinks it’s largely because people knew the improvements were going to take place.
“More and more people understood the Amtrak depot wasn’t shutting down and, on the contrary, was being renovated,” he said.
The historical society spearheaded the renovation plans and helped the city of Mattoon obtain federal funding to do the work. The group also operates a museum near the area where passengers board and depart, which Bauer said is a place many of them visit while waiting for their trains.
The Illinois Department of Transportation tracks the ridership numbers and as of October, the latest month for which figures are available, there had been 34,740 riders for the year. That’s more than any full year since the renovations were announced except for last year, when there were just more than 37,000 riders.
And in 2010, when the improvements were completed, there were just more than 34,000, which was nearly 3,400 more than any of the five previous years.
Bauer said he often talks to passengers while they wait for trains. Many of them are Eastern Illinois University students on their way home to the Chicago area and there are also travelers heading there for shopping or other recreation, he said.
The biggest reason he hears for their choosing rail travel is “by far, the cost,” he said, as they don’t have to pay for gas and parking. There’s also the “ease of use,” he added.
“There’s no reason to battle traffic in Chicago if all you’re going to do is go up and go shopping,” Bauer said. “I think we’re seeing a shift in transportation modes and people are realizing some of the comforts that railroad has to offer.”
Mattoon’s statistics also follow a statewide and nationwide trend. Ridership on all of Amtrak’s Illinois routes has increased 85 percent since 2006, according to information on IDOT’s website.
There’s also been an increase in overall rider numbers throughout the country for eight of the last nine years, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said. He said people are more willing to consider train travel because it’s reliable, affordable and, with set routes at set times, “predictable.”
And while gas prices have leveled off somewhat, knowing what a train ticket costs in advance helps with trip planning, he added.
“You don’t know what gas prices are going to tomorrow,” Magliari said.
He also mentioned the Mattoon depot renovations and “making the station more welcome and active” as a reason for the increase of riders there. Improved accessibility including the elevator that goes from street level to the train boarding level is another factor, he said.
Also, there’s now bus service from Charleston to Mattoon and that “makes the service much more accessible to Eastern students,” Magliari said.
Ticket prices from Mattoon to Chicago start at $18 and there are three departures each day with the routes including stops at cities in between. There are also three southbound trains each day that go to Carbondale and cities on the way.
Bauer said he does have one concern, namely that there’s no ticket agent or Amtrak representative at the depot to help people with ticket sales or with questions.
Magliari said staffing the depot would be up to the state, which provides the funding for the train routes. However, he added, most passengers now use Amtrak’s website to buy and print tickets and can also use the site to find answers to most of their questions.
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