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.