The westbound Amtrak train due at mid-afternoon in Independence arrived more than three hours late Tuesday. On Monday, it didn’t make it at all.

The Missouri River Runner, which crosses the state on Union Pacific tracks four times a day, frequently runs late, a chronic problem that Amtrak says has grown worse in 2019. The two westbound trains have made their Independence stops more than half an hour late – or not at all – roughly half the time through the first eight months of the year.

“We’re working closely with Union Pacific to address issues with those operations that affect our performance,” said Eric Curtit, Missouri Department of Transportation administrator of railroads.

The Union Pacific says weather this year has affected operations significantly.

“We have been experiencing significant weather delays,” said Raquel Espinoza, spokesperson for the UP.

She added, “We do our best to prioritize our traffic. Certainly we give Amtrak priority.”

Who’s on board

The River Runner, supported by fares and state tax dollars, connects Kansas City and St. Louis, with stops in Independence, Lee’s Summit and a half dozen other cities. A train leaves Union Station in Kansas City each morning and arrives in St. Louis at mid-afternoon; a corresponding westbound train comes out of St. Louis in the morning. That pattern is repeated late in the afternoon.

About half of its riders are going 200 miles or more, according to the Rail Passengers Association in Washington, D.C. That would be, for instance, from Kansas City to St. Louis or Kirkwood. Those are the three busiest stations, followed by Jefferson City, Hermann and Lee’s Summit.

Of the 10 stops on the line, Independence is by far the least used, with 6,683 users in 2019 – fewer than 20 passengers a day. That compares with 78,000 at Union Station in Kansas City, just under 67,000 in St. Louis and more than 26,000 in Lee’s Summit.

River Runner ridership has generally fallen this decade. It reached 199,500 in 2013, according to the Rail Passengers Association, and then slipped in four of the next five years, dropping to 167,400 in 2018.

On-time performance

Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari points out that the UP made two significant upgrades a decade ago – double sets of tracks all the way from Jefferson City east to St. Louis and extending a siding near California, Mo., which is west of Jefferson City. That means more freight trains can get off the main line temporarily and let Amtrak – which by law is supposed to have priority – pass through.

“Despite these significant investments, you can see a deterioration in on-time performance, particularly this year,” he said.

The data bear that out. The Amtrak Status Maps Archives Database logs every train, every stop, every day. Those data sketch out the River Runner’s troubles.

For example, the morning train out of Kansas City – No. 314 – leaves Union Station at 8:15, stops in Independence at 8:34, stops in Jefferson City at 11:18 and is scheduled to arrive in St. Louis at 1:55 p.m. In the first eight months of 2019, according to ASMAD, one-third of the time that train has arrived 30 minutes or more late – if at all.

Of those 243 days, 48 were lost to cancellations or service disruptions. For instance, flooding knocked out service for 12 straight days in mid- and late March and then 22 days from mid-May to late June.

On another 36 days, the train was at least 30 minutes late – and 25 of those times it was an hour or more. Nine times it’s been two-plus hours. The worst? It was a couple weeks ago, Aug. 27, when it pulled in at 8:04 p.m. A trip scheduled to run 5 hours and 40 minutes lasted just under 12 hours.

The numbers are worse for the morning train out of St. Louis – No. 311 – which leaves at 9:15, and is scheduled to stop in Independence at 2:20 p.m. and arrive in Kansas City at 2:55. The ASMAD data show 51 days lost to service delays and cancellations and another 45 days being 30 minutes or more late.

But a wrinkle in the way Amtrak schedules can mask some of the problem. It gives itself some wiggle room in the schedule. A train coming out of Union Station and stopping at the Truman Depot in Independence generally makes that run in its scheduled 19 minutes. But going the other way Amtrak schedules that 19-minute run at 35 or 36 minutes – in essence, a 16-minute cushion. It does the same with the schedules at St. Louis and Kirkwood.

So departure times from Independence could give a clearer picture of how late the train is actually running, and those data paint a less flattering picture of No. 311: 56 days lost to service delays or cancellations in the first eight months of 2019 plus 64 days running 30 minutes or more late. That’s 49.4 percent of the time being half an hour or more late, or not running at all. Half a dozen times it’s been more than two hours late.

It’s no better in the evening. No. 313 leaves St. Louis at 4 p.m., stops in Independence at 9:06 and arrives in Kansas City at 9:40 p.m., but that train has been canceled or a half hour-plus late 48.9 percent of the time. Fifteen times that 9:06 p.m. stop has come after midnight, and once last month it was at 4:05 a.m.

Balancing act

Curtit, with MoDOT, said longer UP freight trains mean the River Runner is being shunted to sidings more often.

“And they’re running 12,000-foot trains,” he said.

Espinoza, with UP, said Amtrak gets priority but also that the railroad also has to move freight efficiently.

“Some trains are longer. … It’s definitely something we have to balance,” she said. In a followup email, she said, “We have always operated freight trains with various lengths on this line. There is no indication that we introduced a new train length in this area.”

“We work to provide them,” she said, “with reliable service.”

A video with more on the River Runner is at examiner.net.