According to the latest round of numbers released by Metra, the number of people using the commuter rail service has risen to levels not seen since the months and weeks before the national and local economy cratered into recession.
In its monthly report to the Metra Board of Directors, the rail agency stated the total number of trips on all of Metra’s rail lines combined in the first three months of the year had risen to 19.9 million, an increase of 1.4 percent compared to January through March 2011.
That marks the highest number of riders across the entire commuter rail system in the first quarter since 2009, when 20.2 million trips were logged from January to March.
Locally, ridership numbers have also spiked.
On the Union Pacific West line, which runs from Elburn through LaFox and Geneva to Chicago, ridership numbers sagged significantly from 2008 to 2010, dropping 10.2 percent.
But in the two years since, ridership has rebounded, growing by almost 9 percent on the UP-W, Metra reported.
In the first three months of this year, 1.94 million trips were taken on the UP-W, Metra reported, up 6.7 percent from the first three months of 2011.
In the report, Metra staff attributed the increases to a number of factors, including stable employment numbers and mild early spring weather.
It noted the unusually warm weather in March drew larger than normal crowds to events earlier this year.
But a big factor in the increase in ridership appears to have been gas prices.
“High gas prices do tend to help us increase ridership,” said Metra spokesman Michael Gillis. “But other factors, such as how well the economy is doing, are also large factors.”
He said Metra has no specific ridership predictions for the rest of the year.
But while employment levels in the Chicago area remained down almost 7 percent compared to early 2008, Metra ridership continued to grow.
Gas prices, meanwhile, rose to levels never before seen in the Chicago area. On March 27, the Chicago area recorded an average price of about $4.51 for a gallon of regular unleaded – its highest price ever – according to the AAA Motor Club’s Fuel Gauge Report.
Gasoline prices have since declined to about $4.10 a gallon in the region.
And it remains to be seen what impact that will have on ridership.
But in 2008 and 2011, when gas prices remained consistently above $4 a gallon for much of the year, ridership increased from previous years, the Metra report stated.