Let’s talk about three trains.

Amtrak 311 had a bad day last Wednesday. That’s the morning Missouri River Runner comes out of St. Louis, and it arrives in Kansas City in the middle of the afternoon.

No. 311 left St. Louis at 9:17 a.m., two minutes late, and headed west. (These are times posted by Amtrak.) At the stop in Washington, Mo., it was eight minutes late, and by Sedalia it was running 20 minutes. Not great, not terrible.

Then came trouble. West of Sedalia, No. 311 suffered engine failure, according to the Missouri Department of Transportation. That created a delay of more than three hours, and downstream problems.

That same day, the morning train out of Kansas City, got a late start. No. 314 left Union Station at 8:43, not the scheduled 8:15. It arrived at its first stop, Independence, at 9:08, not 8:34.

And so on. There’s a long stretch between Sedalia and Jefferson City where the River Runner can really roll, and it made up about 10 minutes. Still those going to cities such as Warrensburg and Sedalia were half an hour late, and those going to Hermann or Kirkwood were about 20 minutes late.

The River Runner

So what’s going on here?

I asked Kristi Jamison at MoDOT if it was my imagination or have River Runner times slipped a bit. They have slipped, she said, but there’s a some indication that things are coming around.

“Fortunately now in July I am seeing improvement come back,” she said.

MoDOT knows a reputation for on-time arrival is crucial in attracting riders. And let’s be clear: Ridership has grown strongly. The River Runner is up six years in a row. Elsewhere, such as in Kansas, cities are fighting hard to keep or bring back Amtrak service.

Jamison said she talks with Amtrak and the Union Pacific, on whose tracks the River Runner runs, every week about any issues.

Some things – a lot of things, really – are beyond Amtrak’s control. In April, a bad storm washed out some track near Warrensburg, causing delays for days. In May and June, the UP did extensive maintenance work, and some passengers on the western side of the state were put on buses.

And here’s something Jamison didn’t mention. Amtrak has a weak hand – it owns and controls little track of its own – and last year that hand got a lot weaker. A federal judge struck down the law that told railroad dispatchers to give Amtrak priority over freight trains. Since then Amtrak’s on-time arrivals have slipped across the country, to just 74 percent since last October.

The Washington Post looked at times reported by Amtrak and came to a somewhat harsher conclusion – although it rated the River Runner as the best of the lot.

For the last year, Amtrak is at 72 percent, the Post figures. To be fair, the airlines are at 76 percent. They’re faster but, by a mile, less convenient or comfortable, and the view isn’t as good.

Of more than 30 routes across the country, the River Runner’s 72.2 percent on-time arrival was the best. The Southwest Chief, which stops in Kansas City on its runs between Chicago and Los Angeles, was at 67.1 percent.

Jamison says the River Runner has been doing better. “We’re in the upper 80s in July so far,” she said last week.

Is it ‘on time?’

But “on time” can be squishy, too, so let’s go back that first train, No. 311. The engine problem got fixed, but it made Warrensburg at 4:37 – three hours and 17 minutes late. It arrived in Kansas City at 6:02, not the scheduled 2:55.

However, the second train, No. 314, out of Kansas City in the morning, got to St. Louis at 2:02, just seven minutes off its scheduled arrival. So Amtrak put that train in the books as on time.

How does that work? First, Amtrak gives itself 15 minutes of leeway, much as the airlines do, and it’s probably safe to say most people don’t fret much over a plane or train being, let’s say, 10 or 15 minutes late.

Second, Amtrak has a means of fudging. It only counts the arrival time at the end of the route, not stops along the way. Plus the River Runner’s schedule has padding. On trains coming out of Kansas City, Amtrak gives itself 19 minutes to get to the Truman Depot in Independence, and most of the time that’s exactly what it takes.

Going the other way, however, it schedules 34 minutes – basically another 15 minutes on top of the 15-minute leeway.

The River Runner can roll across the state being 20 minutes or even 30 minutes behind schedule the whole time and still easily arrive “on time.” If you took the morning train from Independence to Sedalia last Wednesday, you boarded 34 minutes late and arrived 29 minutes late, but officially everything was fine.

Oh, and the third train? It was doomed from the start.

No. 311 – the one that had engine failure – is supposed to arrive in Kansas City at 2:55 and then turn around and become No. 316 headed back east at 4 p.m. Last Wednesday, they got it turned around in 20 minutes, leaving Kansas City at 6:22, the time it normally would have been well past Sedalia.

Plus that eastbound train is going against the general flow of traffic on the UP line from Kansas City to Jefferson City, and a badly off-schedule train encounters delays. So it just got worse: two hours and 43 minutes late to Independence, three hours and 18 minutes late to Sedalia, and so on. It finally got to St. Louis at 12:43 a.m., just over three hours late. Those are relatively rare occurences, but they hurt Amtrak’s data and they leave riders grumbling.

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.