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
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