Train Ferry Set Records

November 11, 2005
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People are on the move in West Michigan, and it’s showing in the ways

they choose to travel.

The Pere Marquette Amtrak line between Grand Rapids and Chicago has seen record ridership for the second year in a row. Lake Express, now in its second year of linking the lakeshore to Milwaukee, also has seen a significant increase.

The Pere Marquette line had 96,471 trips in the 2005 fiscal year, up from the previous record of 87,767 in the 2004 fiscal year.

“That’s a 9.9 percent increase, and a record for the line since it started,” said Steve Bulthuis, Macatawa Area Coordinating Council transportation program manager and member of Westrain Collaborative.

The line, which began in 1984, also had a record year in revenue, Bulthuis said.

“It’s good to see that not only are we carrying more folks and meeting their transportation needs, but generating more revenue, as well.”

Despite the increase in revenue, Bulthuis said the line has a long way to go before it can run independent of state and federal operating funds. Funding is a million dollars short for the 2006 fiscal year, which means there is only enough to support 10 months at the present time. Bulthuis said he is hopeful that additional support will come through.

“I think the numbers certainly demonstrate the interest in the line and that it is serving a useful purpose and fulfilling a transportation need,” he said.

The Pere Marquette line works well for business travelers heading from West Michigan to Chicago, Bulthuis said. Passengers can leave Grand Rapids at 7:35 a.m. and arrive in Chicago at 10:30 a.m. to begin their day, then leave at 5:20 p.m. to arrive home in Grand Rapids at 10:21 p.m. Central Union Station in Chicago connects with public transportation, eliminating the need for a car. And the time it takes to board a train is shorter than the time required to board an airplane, Bulthuis said.

Another option for the business traveler from spring to mid-fall is the Lake Express high-speed ferry between Muskegon and Milwaukee, which also had a record season with 10 percent to 15 percent more passengers than its inaugural year in 2004.

“2005 was a smashing success,” said Jeff Fleming, spokesman for Lake Express.

Fleming said there was some concern that there would be a decline in 2005 after a strong first year.

“Instead, we saw just the opposite; we saw an increase in business in the second year,” he said.

A frequent travelers program for those who take more than five trips a year also has gained popularity, starting with 25 members in 2004 and now nearing 200 members.

Fleming said about 15 percent of passengers are business travelers taking advantage of the business class accommodations that allow travelers to hold meetings and work on computers, which can be inconvenient on an airplane and impossible in a car. The business class also has its own attendant, reading material and complimentary drinks.

“Business travelers want convenience and reliability, and on both of those counts 2005 was a good year for Lake Express,” he said.    

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