A funny thing happened a couple of years ago.

Work being done on the tracks that Amtrak uses for the Missouri River Runner forced a change in the schedule. The train, which stops four times a day in Independence, ran earlier in the morning and later in the evening for a time.

I wasn’t the only one to suggest an earlier train out of Kansas City, meaning earlier arrivals in Jefferson City and St. Louis, seemed like an idea that might be worth keeping.

Could that be in the cards? We’ll see, but Amtrak’s popularity keeps rising – in Missouri and nationwide – and a key piece of any expansion of Missouri service is about to be in place.

Let’s do the math first. In the year that ended Sept. 30, according to Amtrak, 199,470 people took the River Runner, 1.8 percent more than the year before. Amtrak has bumped up rates, and River Runner revenues are up 9.3 percent.

That’s in line with the national trend. Amtrak had a record 31.6 million riders in the last year. Ridership has risen in 10 of the last 11 years, the exception being 2009 when the economy was in the worst of the recession.

Amtrak earns most of its money – that’s why it’s running during the partial federal government shutdown – but has always relied on a federal subsidy. Also, some states subsidize specific routes, as Missouri does with the River Runner.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari points out that Missouri specifically promotes Amtrak, perhaps more so than any other state with which Amtrak is a partner.

“If you’ve driven across Missouri on I-70 or on 50, you think ‘there’s got to be a better way,’” he said.

The River Runner, which uses Union Pacific tracks, has largely recovered from past on-time arrival troubles, in part because of a long siding installed near California, Mo., four years ago. Most of the track from Independence to Jefferson City is a single set of tracks, and since traffic goes both ways, a good stretch of double tracks makes a difference.

Now one more piece is coming. The Union Pacific is completing a second bridge over the Osage River just east of Jefferson City. That means double tracks all the way to St. Louis with the elimination of the “last pinch point,” Magliari said.

He points out that the state’s long-term rail plan calls for looking at expanded service once the system has the capacity. That improvement is also seen as needed for high-speed rail, something neighboring Illinois is already doing and that might appeal to Kansas City-to-St. Louis business travelers.

“This bodes very well,” he said.

Jeff Fox is The Examiner’s business reporter and editor. Reach him at 816-350-6313 or jeff.fox@examiner.net. Follow him on Twitter @FoxEJC or @Jeff_Fox.