It's unclear when riders of the Missouri River Runner, which stops four times daily in Independence, will enjoy new passenger cars that federal officials promised almost five years ago.
“It's been a long time coming, and we're anxious to get those new cars in Missouri,” said Michelle Teel of the Missouri Department of Transportation.
The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the maker of those cars, Sumitomo Corp. of America, is far behind schedule to deliver 130 cars for Missouri and a handful of other states. Much of that funding is from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, that is, the so-called stimulus bill passed to boost the economy in the depths of the Great Recession.
Goods produced with that funding have to be made in America with U.S. components and materials. A Sumitomo partner, Nippon Sharyo USA, built a plant outside Chicago for that purpose, but the effort has run into design delays, the Journal reported. It's about two years from production, but the catch is that the federal stimulus money has to be spent by September 2017 or it goes back to Washington.
Teel said this has been “quite frustrating,” but she and Eric Curtit, MoDOT administrator of railroads, referred specific questions to the Illinois Department of Transportation, which is handling the contract for five Midwestern states.
Guy Tridgell, director of communications at the Illinois Department of Transportation, responded to The Examiner in an email this week: “We are working closely with the Federal Railroad Administration and our other state partners to ensure that safe passenger rail cars are built and delivered for use under the terms of the agreement. No decisions has been made and all parties involved continue to meet and discuss. Delivery of the locomotives are tentative for later this year.”
The River Runner crosses the state four times daily – 283 miles – between Kansas City and St. Louis, two trips east and two trips west. It makes eight stops between those two big cities, including Independence and Lee's Summit.
The new bi-level passenger cars would upgrade the traveling experience for those passengers. A typical River Runner train consists of one locomotive, one cafe car and two – sometimes three – passenger cars. States share a pool of cars, though MoDOT said when the purchase was announced in 2011 that getting eight new passenger cars would mean it could replace most of those in use here. The River Runner also is supposed to get new locomotives.
That federal stimulus money is meant to cover about three-fourths of the 130-car order, and it's unclear who would pick up the cost if that money went away.
River Runner usage has increased steadily in recent years, though it peaked at 195,400 in 2013 and dipped to 176.895 in 2015. Most ride coach, but about one rider out of 12 pays a little more to ride in the business class, and those tend to be riders going farther. The busiest stops are Kansas City, Jefferson City, Kirkwood and St. Louis, and Independence is the least-used stop.
Overall, MoDOT says the River Runner is doing well.
“On-time performance is going well, and customer satisfaction is high,” Curtit said.