No quick restoration of Missouri Amtrak line
Amtrak is getting back in the game, but Missouri is choosing once again to lag behind.
Service was cut – and ridership plummeted – in the early days of the pandemic. Now long-haul routes are being restored.
Take the Southwest Chief, which makes its two-day run just twice a day. One comes west out of Chicago, and one comes east out of Los Angeles. It stops in Kansas City, among dozens of other places. Last spring seven-day service was cut to three days. Now daily service is coming back on that route and others in late May.
For the Missouri River Runner, it’s more complicated, more political and more frustrating for the traveling public. The train runs 283 miles across the middle of the state, with stops in Independence, Lee’s Summit, Jefferson City and elsewhere. Two trains a day come west of St. Louis, and two a day come east out of Kansas City.
Last spring, the pandemic cut that to one trip each way – in other words, one round trip a day. By one measure, ridership fell by more than 75 percent.
Now, despite every indication that travel will pick up as vaccinations become more widespread, the state of Missouri has made no movement to fully restore service. The Department of Transportation has expressed support for it, but the Missouri House of Representatives has passed a budget that doesn’t include full, two-round-trip service, so MoDOT has been unable to give Amtrak the go-ahead.
“There is no current plan for that,” Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said this week.
The River Runner, like many short routes, is supported both by Amtrak and by the state.
The pandemic and the halving of service took a toll on ridership. Troy Hughes, MoDOT’s railroad administrator, said just 35,252 people took that train from April 1,2020 through Jan. 31, 2021. Compare that with April 1, 2018 to Jan. 31, 2019 – 145,725 riders.
Hughes said it will take Amtrak one to three months to get crews and trains back in place once MoDOT is allowed to give the green light. The state budget won’t be done for a few more weeks, and the governor needs time for review before signing anything, so this needless delay looks likely to stretch into the summer.
This isn’t a good look for the state. A service paid for by taxpayers and riders can be chopped instantly when a crisis arises, but restoring that service gets caught up in politics.
On a more optimistic note, President Biden, an Amtrak advocate, has offered plans to expand Amtrak service with several ideas that have been talked about for years. One is to create a connection from Newton, Kan., to Oklahoma City. A rider could then get from Kansas City to Wichita, Dallas/Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio and potentially even Houston. That’s likely more than a decade away, and it’s never good to count on Congress to find the political will to affirmatively step up and accomplish something new – but one can hope.
Jeff Fox is The Examiner’s editor. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @Fox_EJC.