In a year when Amtrak set overall ridership records, and the Cardinal train led all long-distance trains with a 12.6 percent increase, Cardinal ridership in West Virginia fell 31 percent, according to figures released Monday by the national passenger rail service.
For the 2018-19 federal fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, ridership on the thrice-weekly Cardinal increased from 96,710 passengers in 2017-18 to 108,935 riders in 2018-19, with the restoration of the Washington-to-New York City segment of the route in mid-November 2018 after a 8½ month suspension.
However, ridership at the eight West Virginia stations served by the Cardinal fell 31 percent, from 35,840 passengers in 2017-18 to 24,731 in 2018-19.
“I believe these numbers are due to adverse actions taken by Amtrak in the past year that have made it more difficult for West Virginians to take the train,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said in a statement Monday.
Manchin said that included the removal of the station agent in Charleston, effective June 6, 2018, making fiscal 2018-19 the first full year that no West Virginia stations on the Amtrak route had ticketing or full checked baggage services.
“I have heard from West Virginians impacted by the removal of the station agent in Charleston,” Manchin said. “Without a station agent, disabled West Virginians have difficulty accessing the train, and those without access to the Internet cannot buy tickets before they arrive.”
Charleston saw a 26 percent drop in ridership, from 11,251 passengers in 2017-18 to 8,280 in 2018-19.
Jim Matthews, president of the national Rail Passengers Association, also blamed the loss of the Charleston station agent for reducing West Virginia ridership on the Cardinal.
“We always see declines in non-staffed stations. It’s as inevitable as the sunset,” he said.
In 2018, Manchin attempted to add a rider to the 2018-19 transportation appropriations bill to require that each state served by Amtrak have at least one full-time station agent, but the legislation was amended at the last minute to mandate part-time caretakers at those stations, who lack the ability to sell tickets or check baggage.
This year, Manchin introduced stand-alone legislation that would mandate station agents in each state.
“Thousands of West Virginians take the train each year to visit family and friends, conduct business, and travel across our state. They deserve at least one manned ticket counter in the state,” he said.
Hinton and Huntington saw the most severe year-to-year ridership declines. Huntington fell 55 percent from 10,784 passengers in 2017-18 to 4,870 passengers in 2018-19, while Hinton lost 58 percent of its ridership, falling from 5,836 to 2,456.
Manchin blamed declines at those stations, in part, on strict policies and higher charges imposed by Amtrak on the operation of charter trains and private railcars.
“While I was proud to help keep the tradition of the New River Train alive through the new Autumn Colors Express, I have no doubt that Amtrak’s decisions to stop allowing private and charter trains played a part in the severe declines in ridership at Huntington and Hinton,” Manchin said.
In the past, passengers on Amtrak railcars leased to the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society for New River Train excursions counted toward ridership figures at those stations.
The 2018 New River Train had few Amtrak cars, as did its successor, the 2019 Autumn Colors Express, whose ridership on those cars will be counted toward 2019-20 Amtrak figures.
Additionally, ridership at White Sulphur Springs was flat, dropping from 5,230 to 5,191, while ridership increased at Alderson (433 to 578) and Thurmond (285 to 364). Montgomery saw a decrease in ridership from 347 to 275.
Meanwhile, ridership on the two West Virginia stops on the Capitol Limited route increased in 2018-19 by 2.2 percent.
Ridership at Martinsburg grew from 10,784 to 10,917, while ridership at Harpers Ferry increased from 7,638 to 7,920.
Nationally, Amtrak ridership grew 2.5 percent, from 31.72 million passengers in 2017-18 to 32.52 million in 2018-19.