Amtrak makes marked improvement in Missouri

Thursday, June 18, 2009 | 6:59 p.m. CDT; updated 7:23 p.m. CDT, Thursday, June 18, 2009

ST. LOUIS — Amtrak's on-time performance has improved dramatically for trains going to and from St. Louis.

In October, less than 1 percent of trains traveling between St. Louis and Kansas City arrived within 15 minutes of schedule, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Thursday. But in May, 93 percent arrived on time.

Service between St. Louis and Chicago also saw marked improvement. On-time performance in May was 77 percent, up from 26 percent in May 2008.

"We've made some huge strides," Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said.

The turnaround began in the fall. Union Pacific, which owns the track Amtrak uses, added an extra track across the Gasconade River. About the same time, a new federal law called for fines on railroad companies if they didn't keep passenger trains running on schedule 80 percent of the time.

Sandy Brown of Sunset Hills in suburban St. Louis says when she took Amtrak to Kansas City several years ago, "it was terribly late," she said. "It has been late most the time."

The challenge for Amtrak becomes getting the word out to passengers who may have tried the train last summer when gasoline prices shot up, only to face long delays. When gasoline prices fell last fall, so did ridership gains. The number of riders in Missouri went from 18,615 in July to 11,571 in November.

"You literally have people who get off the train and say they're not getting on the train again," said Rod Massman, administrator of railroads for the Missouri Department of Transportation. "You can't run a service like that."

Another key step in Amtrak's improved performance came earlier this year, when the Missouri Department of Transportation began working with Union Pacific on the biggest stumbling block to keeping passenger trains on schedule: the track itself.

Amtrak uses a double track between St. Louis and Jefferson City. But west of the capital, there is only a single track, and Amtrak must share it with 50 to 60 freight trains daily. Freight train interference causes most of Amtrak's delays. Union Pacific dispatchers direct Amtrak trains to pull over onto sidings whenever a freight train needs to pass. Those sidings aren't long enough to hold a mile-long freight train, which is why passenger trains must always yield.

Union Pacific is using $5 million from the state and $3.3 million from the federal government to lengthen a siding near California, Mo., where Amtrak trains and freight trains meet regularly. By November, the new siding should allow slower freight trains to move off the main track and let faster passenger trains pass, reducing annual delays by an additional 17 percent, according to MoDOT.

Union Pacific has spent tens of millions of dollars in Missouri in recent years on track upgrades. As a result, "We've been able to see an improvement in velocity in Amtrak and freight," said Mark Davis, spokesman for Union Pacific. Meanwhile, freight traffic nationwide is on the decline.

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