Illinois is testing trains at 110 mph as it gets ready for high-speed passenger service from Chicago to St. Louis, a line that would form the spine of a Midwestern high-speed network.
St. Louis to Kansas City would be part of that network, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. One statewide media outlet did that this week, when Missourinet reported that high-speed trains would be rolling in Missouri by the end of 2013. Here’s the report: www.missourinet.com/?s=amtrak
That’s not correct. By the end of 2013, the state plans to have completed several significant upgrades along the Union Pacific line that Amtrak uses for its Missouri River Runner service, with stops in Independence, Lee’s Summit and half a dozen other cities between Kansas City and St. Louis. Those improvements include a second bridge over the Osage River east of Jefferson City and a universal crossover – think of it as adding passing lanes – at Webster Groves.
Then the state can start talking – talking – with the UP about the complicated choreography of running faster Amtrak trains on those very busy tracks, says Eric Curtit, the Missouri Department of Transportation’s administrator of railroads. It can be done, but it’s still a matter of fitting short Amtraks – sometimes going against the flow of traffic – in amid very long freight trains.
The big picture is that we’re not – never have been – talking about high-speed service like the 200-mph plus common in Europe and Asia. Amtrak runs its Acela in the Northeast at up to 150 mph, but officials have defined 110 mph as high speed for the Midwest. And it will be a gradual change. Tracks are certified at various speeds. For example, the UP’s line that Amtrak uses in Missouri is pretty much top of the line, so a passenger train can, by rule, go up to 79 mph, thought Curtit notes that there are sections where it can’t get above 60. The next step up is 90, then 110, then 125. Each requires better tracks. The upgrade to 90 has been in the long-range plan for a decade and a half, so the UP knows MoDOT will want to sit down sometime after 2013 and discuss faster service.
“It’s not a mystery to them,” Curtit said.
With the current 79 mph, Amtrak takes five hours, 40 minutes to cross the state, with eight stops along the way. It frequently beats that by a few minutes, Getting up to 90 mph would help.
“I think the goal would be to get under five hours,” he said.
If you’ve got a free moment at about 1 p.m. Saturday and if you’re even a lightweight rail enthusiast like me, you might want to be at Union Station.
The Union Pacific’s No. 844 is scheduled to arrive then and be on display Sunday. It is quite a sight, and the sound is impressive. You can hear that distinctive low whistle from far away. No. 844 has made a few stops in Kansas City – and a couple of passes through Eastern Jackson County – in the last few years, but I’d still expect a bit of a crowd Saturday afternoon. Take the kids. Take a camera.
The railroad is celebrating its sesquicentennial, and it’s sent No. 844 on several good-will excursions this year. On Thursday, it leaves its base in Cheyenne, Wyo., for stops in Nebraska and Kansas before stopping in Kansas City on its way to Houston. This will be the seventh and last leg of the 150th anniversary tour. No. 844 was the last steam engine on which the railroad took delivery. That was in 1944. Until 1957, it was used for high-speed passenger service, but diesel was replacing steam by then. No. 844 was used for hauling freight from 1957 to 1959. Then it was saved from being scrapped in 1960, and it’s been restored, to the delight of railfans.
When the train is rolling, the railroad posts location updates on Twitter. Follow @UP_Steam.
Monday night – after work, after Scouts – I sat at the Sonic at 35th and Noland in Independence, sipping a strawberry limeade and trying to release the cares of the day.
I thumbed through the newspaper. Finally, at about 9:15, here came Amtrak, the Missouri River Runner No. 313, the afternoon train out of St. Louis. It was late, but probably not standing-at-the-depot-tapping-your-foot late. Amtrak later posted an Independence arrival time of 9:17 (11 minutes late) but a final arrival in Kansas City of 9:36, a tidy four minutes early. (There’s some slack in the schedule, as Amtrak gives itself 34 minutes to make the 19-minute run from the Truman Depot to Union Station.) That’s been the pattern with No. 313, often not quite on time but not late enough that anyone would likely fuss very much. Planes are 20, 40, 60 minutes late all the time, and we just accept it as part of the deal, right?
The River Runner goes back to its regular schedule next Wednesday after three months of maintenance work on the Union Pacific tracks it uses. Since early July, the morning train out of Kansas City has run an hour early – Hey, why not do that all the time? Or two hours early? – and the morning train out of St. Louis has run two hours early. The afternoon out of Kansas City has been pushed back an hour, and the train out of St. Louis – the sometimes pokey 313 – has kept its regular schedule.
How has that worked out? Actually, it’s been OK. The extreme heat in the middle of the summer caused speed restrictions that messed up traffic on that busy line, and that really trashed Amtrak’s arrival times for days at a time, but otherwise Amtrak’s posted times have been pretty solid. There are exceptions, of course, and every now and then a 45-minute-late train just happens.
So here’s the long-term proposition: Lots of Amtrak riders just love it and are willing to take the relatively slight risk of a late, late train. River Runner ridership continues to grow (fiscal year 2012 numbers should be out soon), but if Amtrak wants to draw, let’s say, more business customers, it needs a rock solid reputation for getting from point A to point B on time. For what it’s worth, my observation would be that people judge Amtrak on a somewhat tougher scale than they do the airlines, despite all of the hassles of flying. Go figure. That’s part of Amtrak’s challenge, too.
The new (actually old) times, starting Wednesday:
• Train 314, the morning train out of Kansas City, departs Union Station in Kansas City at 8:15 a.m., with a stop in Independence at 8:34 and arrival in St. Louis at 1:55 p.m.
• Train 311, the morning train out of St. Louis, departs at 9:15 a.m., stops in Independence at 2:20 p.m. and arrives in Kansas City at 2:55.
• Train 316, the afternoon train out of Kansas City, departs at 4 p.m., stops in Independence at 4:19 and arrives in St. Louis at 9:40.
• Train 313, the afternoon train out of St. Louis, departs at 4, stops in Independence at 9:06 and arrives in Kansas City at 9:40. That train’s schedule has been the same all summer.
The River Runner also makes stops in Lee’s Summit, Warrensburg, Sedalia, Jefferson City, Hermann, Washington and Kirkwood.
High-speed rail service didn’t pick up any speed in a debate Friday among the candidates for Missouri governor.
I was among a panel of journalists asking questions of Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, Republican Dave Spence and Libertarian Jim Higgins in Columbia at the Missouri Press Association’s annual gathering. For the record, the high-speed rail question was among several I had prepared, but it was down the list and I didn’t think time would allow it. We did get to jobs and the economy, the tobacco tax, Medicaid, management of the Missouri River and several questions on education. Transportation also had come up – broadly, how do we pay for rising needs, such as rebuilding I-70? – so the rail question seemed to fit and seemed like a little change of pace.
Long-range plans call for some form of high-speed rail along the Amtrak line that connects Kansas City to St. Louis, service that currently includes stops in Independence, Lee’s Summit and six other cities. Missouri is still in the planning, talking and hoping stage.
So the question to the candidates: High-speed rail is coming to the Midwest. Illinois is building the spine as we speak – Chicago to St. Louis. Should Missouri more aggressively pursue its options?
Spence was the most direct: “I think it sounds great in concept, but who’s going to pay for it? ... I don’t think the taxpayer wants to pay for it.”
That’s a fairly straight answer, and it echoes a frequently heard sentiment – although it overlooks the fact that taxpayers already pour massive amounts of money into roads and bridges, airports and even dredging rivers, all of which are public subsidies to shipping companies and airlines just as much as putting money in Amtrak is. The real question is: Which subsidies get priority?
Spence did say one intriguing thing. He had defended Missouri’s roads as being “in decent shape” and said its interstates “are probably past their warranties, but they’re OK.” Again, money. Rebuilding I-70 from St. Louis to Kansas City has been pegged at $1 billion. For some perspective, the state’s entire annual budget is around $23 billion. So, Spence asked, do we rebuild I-70 or start high-speed rail? Well, those two things could be “in the mix” if and when the state gets to that discussion, he said.
Higgins took a standard Libertarian stance, that is, a dim view of any subsidies, even saying the state “overdid it on the highways.” He wants to let the market decide. “Supply and demand is a powerful thing,” he said.
Gov. Nixon has been keen to talk about embracing emerging industries such as high-tech life sciences, but he was more cautious about this new thing chugging over the horizon. The state needs to ready, he said, when high-speed rail’s moment arrives. He stressed the importance of rail freight service and the need to make Amtrak service dependable (it has made strides). He even got down to an important detail such as the second Osage River bridge for the Union Pacific line that Amtrak uses in its cross-state service, removing a key bottleneck. “We have worked to improve that system,” he said.
But he had a chance – all three had a chance – to say, hey, this is how far along I’d like to see that process come in the next four years. They could have made the case, a pretty fair case, for how it would lead to broader economic development and make doing business easier. None did. To be fair, jobs, Medicaid, roads, schools and colleges, and whatever other crises Jefferson City might dream up figure to tie up most of the governor’s time and most of the state’s money. Maybe when those 110-mph trains start rolling between Chicago and St. Louis – short test runs start in a week – it will begin to be a little more real and a little more urgent.
Amtrak’s Missouri service has come a long way in on-time arrival in the last few years. Still, hangups inevitably happen, and Amtrak will often get blamed, even if a long delay is someone else’s fault.
Business people frighten themselves with the observation that an average person will tell one other person, maybe, about a good customer experience – but will tell 10 people went things go wrong. You know how that goes. Best-case, on-time scenario: How was your train ride? Oh, fine. Great way to travel. Comfortable and relaxed. Say, what’s for lunch? Alternative scenario: Geez, why was your train so late? That darned Amtrak couldn’t organize a two-car parade. And let me tell you another thing ...
I’m wondering if Amtrak’s ears are burning after last Friday evening’s experience.
Here’s what happened. The Missouri River Runner No. 316 left Kansas City on time, at 5 p.m., according to times posted by Amtrak. It stopped for a minute in Independence at 5:18 and then Lee’s Summit at 5:33, a couple of minutes early. Then something happened. It didn’t arrive at the next stop, Warrensburg, until 9:26. That’s three hours and 10 minutes late. It lost a little more time as it made the remaining five stops on the way to St. Louis, where it arrived at a minute before 2 a.m. That’s three hours and 21 minutes late.
It was the same for No. 313, making the run the other way. It left St. Louis on time at 4 p.m. and did fine up through Jefferson City, where it arrived at 6:18, four minutes early. Next stop, Sedalia – two hours and 55 minutes late. It made to Independence at 12:10 a.m. instead of 9:06 p.m. That’s not the worst Independence time I’ve seen for that particular train, but it’s in the ballpark. No. 313 eased into Union Station at 12:32 a.m., just shy of three hours late.
What happened? Disabled freight train, says Amtrak. Bear in mind that outside the northeastern United States, Amtrak doesn’t have – has never had, probably will never have – its own tracks. The Missouri River Runner is on a very busy Union Pacific line. The Southwest Chief, which connects Chicago to Los Angeles with stops in Kansas City, is on a busy BNSF line. The railroads are obliged to accommodate Amtrak, and they do. Amtrak and the UP, for example, have made great strides on Missouri River Runner times in the last few years. But a stalled train still gums up the works.
Amtrak has been on a modified schedule all summer to accommodate replacing some track and thousands of ties, and other track work, between Jefferson City and Pleasant Hill. That wraps up in October. A quick glance at arrival times reveals that Amtrak has done OK – except when the UP has been forced to impose speed restrictions when excessive heat raises worries about warped tracks. We’ve had more than our share of high heat. Those restrictions mess up the complex schedule of threading short little Amtrak trains in among big, long freight trains, and some of those resulting Amtrak arrival times have been one, two, even three-plus hours late. It happens. And people talk.
State officials have been looking for ways to fix what is widely regarded as Missouri's broken transportation funding system.
A hearing before the Blue Ribbon Citizens Committee on Missouri's Transportation Needs is on Monday in Lee's Summit. The hearing, the last of seven and the only one in the Kansas City area, is at 10 a.m. in the Shenandoah Room at the Gamber Center at 4 S.E. Independence Ave. That's east of downtown and just west of Lee's Summit Cemetery, off Langsford Road.
Minutes of the first four meetings – the ones posted so far – reveal a pattern, as chambers of commerce, legislators, businesses and citizens offer their views on specific projects and the overall picture. That pattern could be characterized as: Roads, roads, roads. A word for airports and barges. Roads, roads, roads. Hey, tourism is important, and that means roads. Roads, roads, roads. Public transit. Hey, guys, farmers and businesses rely on good roads.
All of which is true. State highway funding continues to deteriorate, and MoDOT says it can barely keep up with maintaining the state's 33,000 miles of roads – more that Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa combined – so any new projects that might spur economic development have to wait.
And what's largely missing from this conversation? Rail - either to haul freight or move people. Well, one railroad official said his company appreciated this effort. A city official from St. Joseph said the city hopes one day Kansas City and Omaha will be linked by passenger rail service. I'll second that motion, and add that it's a no-brainer, considering Omaha's charms and the fact that a connection to Omaha puts you on Amtrak's California Zephyr, a Chicago-to-San Francisco route meaning access to Denver, Salt Lake City and Sacramento, and, nearer to home, five cities across southern Iowa.
Again, logical. But no one other than our friend in St. Joseph is really talking about it.
To be fair, MoDOT has been doing an extensive review of its longterm rail plan, both freight and passenger, but this more comprehensive Citizens Committee will have to wrestle with one of the state's most pressing issues: How to pay for highways given the understanding that maintaining the status quo will mean a deteriorating system.
Roberta Broecker, MoDOT's chief financial officer, put it to the commission this way: "We have a problem, and there's a rough road ahead."
A heads up for Amtrak riders in Missouri: The trains are running late across the state and likely will well into next week.
Blame the heat, which can affect tracks A heat-related track problem, for example, has been suggested as the cause of the deadly July 4 Union Pacific derailment in the Chicago area. So railroads take precautions. The UP confirmed late Thursday that speed restrictions are back in place, just as they were a few weeks ago when highs were well into triple digits. That played havoc with the Missouri River Runner’s arrival times. This week, starting with the two afternoon trains on Wednesday – one out of St. Louis, one out of Kansas City – it seemed that the pattern was re-emerging.
Consider this morning’s 7:15 train out of Kansas City: nine minutes late by the time it made the usual 19-minute run to Independence, then 17 minutes late by Warrensburg, 37 by Sedalia, 46 by Hermann and an hour and 11 minutes by the next-to-last stop, in Kirkwood. Instead of making St. Louis at 12:55 p.m., the River Runner arrived right at one hour late, according to the railroad’s posted times. (Amtrak gives itself some padding by scheduling more time than it actually takes for the segments between Independence and Kansas City and between Kirkwood and St. Louis, so a train running, say, an hour late might make that last stop just 45 minutes late.)
Not that Amtrak will tell you this. It posts schedules and actual expected arrival times at www.amtrak.com/train-routes once a train is rolling and starts posting a few arrival times along the way. (You can also call 1-800-USA-RAIL.) But if you think you’ll grab the morning train tomorrow and actually be in Jefferson City at 10:18, you are very likely to be disappointed. Give it a half hour, which is reasonable under the circumstances. In a week or 10 days or whenever this excessive heat lets up, things are likely to get right back on schedule – but not tomorrow. And Amtrak won’t come out and say that.
There are some reasons. Even though this morning’s train arrived in Jefferson City half an hour late, you don’t want to tell tomorrow’s passengers go ahead and show up late. That would get complicated and frustrating very quickly. Presumably, Amtrak is not eager to blame the UP, especially since the UP is doing the right thing – the absolutely necessary thing – by putting safety first.
But the result – the wrong result for all the plausibly right reasons – is that the annoyed Amtrak passenger going from Sedalia to St. Louis isn’t going to know why his train is half an hour late before he even gets aboard. Not a great way to begin the travel experience.
Just a reminder: Amtrak’s schedule for the Missouri River Runner is changing for an extended time, starting today and through Oct. 20.
The Union Pacific is doing track work west of Jefferson City, and the Amtrak changes open up time during the day for crews to do their work.
The Amtrak train crosses the state four times a day, connecting Kansas City and St. Louis and making stops in Independence, Lee’s Summit and six other cities. Three of those four trains are affected. The changes:
• The morning train out of Kansas City leaves an hour early, at 7:15, stopping in Independence at 7:34, Lee’s Summit at 7:51 and Jefferson City at 10:18. and arriving in St. Louis at 12:55. (Just a thought: This wouldn’t be a bad regular schedule, especially for those going to the capital for the day. Even a little earlier would be fine.)
• The morning train out of St. Louis leaves two hours early, at 7:15 a.m., stopping in Independence at 12:20 p.m. and arriving in Kansas City at 12:55 p.m.
• The afternoon train out Kansas City leaves an hour later, at 5 p.m., stopping in Independence at 5:19 and Jefferson City at 8:03, and arriving in St. Louis at 10:40.
• The 4 p.m. train out St. Louis – Independence at 9:06, Kansas City at 9:40 – stays on its regular schedule.
The River Runner should be able to make this schedule stick. The blessedly lower temperatures that finally arrived over the weekend should mean an end to the speed restrictions of the last couple of weeks on the UP’s cross-state line. Still, this morning’s train out of Kansas City left 10 minutes late and was at least that late – yes, I can hear it and can tell Amtrak from UP, despite what my skeptical son says – when it passed through southern Independence, including my house.
It’s just after 2:30 on a sweltering Friday afternoon in Independence. It’s 100 degrees outside. Amtrak’s River River, out of St. Louis this morning, normally should have made its brief stop at the Truman Depot in Independence and should be about to pull into Union Station in Kansas City.
Not today. Not yesterday. Probably not tomorrow.
The Union Pacific, whose tracks Amtrak uses between Kansas City and St. Louis, imposes speed restrictions – 40 mph for freight trains, 50 for Amtrak – when it gets really hot. It’s about safety. Heat can do funny things to tracks.
Here’s the rub: Neither the UP nor Amtrak will so much as tweet the sudden schedule changes. The Missouri Department of Transportation, which promotes Amtrak and works closely with it, doesn’t either.
The UP imposed the restrictions June 27, and suddenly the River Runner wasn’t running so fast, arriving at its destination 45 minutes, an hour, even an hour and 40 miniutes late.
The heat eased up Monday and Tuesday, and times were mostly good again. But it was danged hot on the Fourth of July – the first high of 100 on the Fourth since 1954 – and times have fallen off. It looks like 102 today and a lovely 105, maybe with rain, on Saturday, before falling back into the 90s and then 80s for at least several days.
In the meantime, we have slow trains. If you got on the afternoon train out of St. Louis on Thursday, you got far more than your scheduled five-hour-and-40-minute ride. You left St. Louis a couple of minutes late, at 4:02, and by the second stop, Washington, were 11 minutes off schedule. By Jefferson City, it was 26 minutes. By the time you should have been to Independence, 9:06, you weren’t quite to Warrensburg yet. Everything this side of Jefferson City basically ran an hour late. Arrival in Indepedence was 10:10 and Kansas City (scheduled for 9:40) was 10:31.
(Today’s morning train out of St. Louis, the one I mentioned at the outset, left on time at 9:15, according to Amtrak’s website, but times after that aren’t posted yet and there were cryptic notes about projections of 34-minute late arrivals in Lee’s Summit, Independence and Kansas City.)
OK, it happens. Safety comes first. But we live in a social media age, and pushing out a two-sentence tweet would help passengers a lot. Transparency matters. People really are understanding – if you explain what’s going on and why.
@MoRiverRunner (apparently that would be MoDOT) did acknowledge the restrictions to @kclightrail when that person retweeted my post about all this earlier in the week. But how about a heads up, folks?
It only took a couple of phone calls and a couple of emails to solve the mystery: Why was Amtrak across Missouri suddenly running so slowly?
After years of inconsistent on-time performance – and occasional late arrivals measured in hours, not minutes – Amtrak has really turned things around in its cross-state Missouri River service.
The addition of a key bridge east of Jefferson City and a key $8 million, 9,000-foot siding west of Jefferson City have made a huge difference. (Another bridge is coming.) Unless it has to pull over to make room for freight trains, the River Runner can roll. Given a clear shot at the 283-mile run across the state, it typically can beat the scheduled five-hour-40-minute trip by 10 or 20 minutes. Overall, Amtrak says, the River Runner is on time more than 90 percent of the time.
Then last Wednesday came. Suddenly all four trains were running way late – 30 minutes, 40 minutes, 75 minutes, a couple even better than 100 minutes. This lasted through the weekend.
Here's an example: Last Friday morning's train out of St. Louis left on time, 9:15 a.m., and actually made the first stop, Kirkwood, six minutes early. But by Washington it was 15 minutes late, and then 34 minutes late by Jefferson City. It steadily got worse: 49 minutes late to Sedalia and hour and 21 minutes late to Lee's Summit. Add another five extra minutes to get to Independence, a run that usually takes around 16 minutes.
Finally, at 4:08 p.m., the River Runner arrived at Union Station, 73 minutes late. That's better than the 86-minute-late time for Independence because Amtrak gives itself some leeway, a scheduled 35 minutes from the Truman Depot to Union Station for a run that generally only takes 18 to 20 minutes. (It does the same thing on the Kirkwood-to-St. Louis end, so a train running an hour late on much of its route might go in the books as a more respectable 45 minutes late.)
This isn't the usual pattern. Generally when a River Runner is late, it's because of one or two big bottlenecks somewhere. It's out of KC on time, in Independence on time, in Lee's Summit on time, etc., until – boom – a 35-minute problem crops up between, say, Sedalia and Jefferson City. The last few days have been different, losing eight, 10, 15 minutes between stops. They're just going slower, as borne out by the posted times at Amtrak's website. Why?
My guess was some sort of track problem, although those also tend to be localized. Turns out I was on the right, um, track.
The Union Pacific today confirmed that the high temperatures have compelled the railroad to limit freight trains to 40 mph and Amtrak to 50 mph on that busy Kansas City-to-St. Louis line. It's about safety. Hard to say how long they'll last (though the heat is lasting all week), and because things are so fluid the UP doesn't typically post the imposition of those limits. (For longer term issues, like last summer's Missouri River flooding that reduced and slowed traffic on a companion line, the UP did post word.)
That seems reasonable from the Union Pacific's end. It has a vast system, and it's focused on freight. Most of the public won't much care if a load of coal rolls by 40 or at 60.
Amtrak and the Missouri Department of Transportation are another matter. As you might have surmised, I am happily counted among the train geeks, and I follow the key players by social and traditional media means. Wouldn't a MoDot press release have helped explain things to riders – and potential riders? Couldn't someone somewhere have tweeted a heads up? I scoured pretty closely over the weekend, finding nothing more than the mysterious arrival times, and I finally got the key pieces of the puzzle by contacting Amtrak and the UP first thing Monday, something most folks don't have the time to do. Also, some temporarily Amtrak schedule changes are coming up starting next week due to scheduled track work, and you have to click and fuss a little to find even that much on MoDOT's website.
Missouri River Runner ridership is up sharply in recent years, no doubt in part because word has gotten around about reliability. An eight-year-old state report suggests someday running not four trains across the state daily but 12, a move that would make the logistics of a day trip to Jefferson City or a weekend in St. Louis far easier. High-speed service would put in you in St. Louis in four hours, not just under six.
Maybe those things will happen, but Amtrak has to operate like business as it gets from here to there. (Those government-as-business metaphors are usually horribly misleading, but here it's appropriate.) That means leveling with your customers, and Amtrak has been pretty good on that point. But is also means taking the initiative and heading off potential PR headaches as they come up. Rail passengers, heaven knows, are a patient lot, enthusiastic about the product and willing to give the benefit of the doubt. So tweet already.
Maybe I'm all wet. Let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org
Also follow me on Twitter @Jeff_Fox