Amtrak's Missouri River Runner attracting more riders

Thursday, May 5, 2011 | 3:22 p.m. CDT; updated 7:19 p.m. CDT, Thursday, May 5, 2011
Eric Peterson, conductor of the Missouri River Runner, waits outside his train on April 23 after a long day of conducting. Peterson has been a conductor for five years. "I've liked trains ever since I was a little kid. This is always what I wanted to do," Peterson said.
Saturday is National Train Day

Missouri train enthusiasts are celebrating National Train Day across the state on Saturday. Here are some of the activities taking place.

Truman Depot & Amtrak Station

1111 W. Pacific Ave., Independence

10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Model trains, railroad memorabilia and railroad videos will be on display.

Kansas City Union Station

30 W. Pershing, Kansas City

9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Visitors can tour KC Rail Experience and KC Model Railroad Experience free throughout the day.

Kirkwood Amtrak Station

110 W. Argonne Drive, Kirkwood

9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

An operating model will be on display throughout the day by the Mississippi Valley N-Scalers Model Railroad Club and Kirkwood Historical Society.

La Plata Amtrak Station

535 N. Owensby, La Plata

Visitor can view displays by Operation Lifesaver and tour the recent upgrades made to the train depot. Tours will also be made available at the nearby Exhibition of Amtrak History.

Poplar Bluff Moark Regional Railroad Museum

303 Moran St., Poplar Bluff

10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Tours will be held throughout the day of the caboose, museum, and Southeast Missouri mobile museum.

Springfield Railroad Historical Museum

1300 N. Grant St., Springfield

2 to 4 p.m.

An open house will be held in the afternoon with children activities.


COLUMBIA — The conductor adjusts his navy blazer as he walks down the aisle, the horn of the locomotive humming in the background. Bound for Kansas City, the Missouri River Runner gently rocks and sways.

"Tickets, ladies and gentlemen. Tickets, please!" The young trainman smiles at each passenger. He checks an ID, punches the ticket and returns the stub. No lines, scanners, pat-downs or conveyor belts.

More and more riders are having tickets punched aboard Amtrak trains. As Amtrak celebrates its 40th anniversary of operation this week, it reports that nationwide ridership has increased by 6 percent in the past year. In Missouri ridership is up 16 percent since June 2010, said Kristi Jamison, spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Transportation.

The Missouri River Runner, which runs between St. Louis and Kansas City daily, now averages more than 600 riders per day during the summer, with passengers hopping on and off at destinations along the route.

As the River Runner glides west on a recent run, a young mother dangles her Shape Up sneaker over her leg, her practical brown purse open and stuffed with snacks for her two children. She pulls out her iPhone, checks the time and slides it back into its place.

The train is on time today, but that might not have been the case three years ago. From July to November in 2008, passenger trains ran at least 30 minutes behind 38 percent of time. Ridership decreased dramatically as freight cars clogged the tracks, stalling passenger trains. Missouri's Amtrak was among the biggest losers. But pressure to improve came in 2008, when President George W. Bush passed a law that levied fines against Amtrak or Union Pacific, the freight carrier, if trains were consistently departing late.

Over the past two years, Missouri's Amtrak on-time records have dramatically improved. The 5 1/2-hour River Runner ride began and ended on time 92 percent of the time in 2010, according to Amtrak records.

"We're providing a reliable service at a popular price," Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari says. "That's why people are choosing Amtrak."

The River Runner is also easy, riders say. Trains leave twice daily for their destinations. There are eight scheduled stops between St. Louis and Kansas City: Kirkwood, Washington, Hermann, Jefferson City, Sedalia, Warrensburg, Lee's Summit and Independence. The train pauses for five minutes as passengers board or disembark at each station.

Riders are choosing the rails because train travel is easy, the atmosphere is comfortable and it's an affordable alternative to air travel and rising gas prices.

"When you're driving, you don't get the opportunity to see the scenery," Rick Grundon, 62, says. "On the train I can read a book. I can get up and stretch my legs if I want to. It's much more comfortable."

Convenience and cost drew Grundon to the River Runner. The night before he departed from Lee's Summit, a friend had called to say that his new truck was ready to be picked up in St. Louis. With only 24 hours to secure transportation, he stumbled upon Amtrak and its $28 solution for a one-way fare.

For 283 miles, Grundon and other passengers can take in a bucolic Missouri. Silo after silo, the backwoods and back roads of Missouri fly by. The eastern half of the route features frequent views of the Missouri River. As riders stare out the wall of windows that runs the length of the train, they quietly munch on peanuts, chips and candy.

Each of the Runner's four trains has a snack car, where passengers can buy White Castle cheeseburgers, Starbucks bottled frappucinos and plain peanuts with cash. Imported beer is $6.50, a single serving of wine is $5.50. Snacks range from $2 to $5.

Savannah Ernewein, 19, a student at Missouri State University in Springfield, flew to St. Louis after spring break and was riding the rails home to Warrensburg, where her parents would meet her at the station.

"A tank of gas is like $40, and it would take one to get there and one back. This ticket was only $28," she says. "And the train's not so bad."

A young woman types away on her Macbook Pro, her face glowing in the soft light of the screen, the cord of her charger wrapped around her feet. Her Blackberry and laptop are plugged into the two outlets of her row.

Across the aisle, Mike Sanford wears a green zip-up jacket bearing the Kaufman Broadcast logo. The multiservice media company he works for is based in St. Louis, and he's returning from a job in Kansas City. His company uses several forms of transportation, but today he's riding the Runner.

"We take the train sometimes, we fly sometimes, we drive sometimes," Sanford says as he checks his watch. "To fly one-way from Kansas City to St. Louis by Southwest is $149, compared to the $49 of riding the train round-trip."

He zips up his black backpack as the train rolls into the station. "Today was my first time riding. It's kind of long, but for the price — yeah, it's fine."

The real cost of his ticket is higher than he might know. The state of Missouri and the federal government have been subsidizing Amtrak since 1979 rather than let the rail service go broke. Congress created the National Railroad Passenger Corp., or Amtrak, in 1970 as a private corporation managed by a board of directors but still dependent on government oversight.

Missouri has three Amtrak lines running through it: the River Runner and two routes — the Texas Eagle and the Southwest Chief — that connect Chicago and Los Angeles. Each route's lines are maintained and operated with state and federal subsidies.

In 2010, the Missouri legislature approved $8.3 million for Amtrak. In addition to the River Runner, the Texas Eagle carries passengers from St. Louis to Poplar Bluff along its route from Chicago to San Antonio, and the Southwest Chief runs from La Plata to Kansas City as part of its route from Chicago to Los Angeles.

The state's contribution is determined by the total operational cost of Amtrak in Missouri minus the projected amount of ticket revenue each year, MoDOT administrator Rod Massman says.

At this point, the cost of passenger travel is subsidized between 25 percent and 50 percent, Massman says. For the Missouri River Runner, that can be between $14 and $28 for a round-trip fare booked online the day of travel.

"It really depends on the ticket how much is subsidized," Massman says. "There are so many different scenarios ­– when you buy, what discounts you use. You can't really nail down a figure as to how much the state supports an individual rider."

Revenue from ticket sales still does not come close to covering total operation costs, Massman says. But, earlier this year, President Barack Obama reaffirmed the nation's commitment to train transportation, setting up a six-year, $53 billion initiative to create high-speed rail services across the country.

Some of that money might be heading to Missouri. In March, Gov. Jay Nixon announced the state would apply for almost $1 billion to implement high-speed rail between St. Louis and Kansas City. The state would have to contribute $4.5 million.

Although the River Runner cuts through some of Central Missouri's most scenic country, Missouri riders seem to be choosing it for function more than fun. Sarah Luebert of the Missouri Division of Tourism says only 2 percent of tourists use the Amtrak as their primary form of transportation while in Missouri.

Jefferson City Conventions and Visitors director Steve Picker, however, reports that tourists riding the rails are exploring Missouri's capital. Volunteers greet passengers when they arrive in the city to offer restaurant recommendations and directions; some local hotels provide transportation to and from the station.

"Amtrak is a great business for our community because it gets people here to spend money," Picker says. "We hear reports that people are taking the train and staying the night. The longer they're here, the more they buy."

And as gas prices are expected to rise, MoDOT and Amtrak both expect to see more riders on trains, regardless of purpose.

Passengers board the Missouri River Runner on April 23 at the Jefferson City Amtrak station. The line travels daily between St. Louis and Kansas City.
Maxine Birdsong stands among her friends as they gather a group to make a trip to the snack car of the Missouri River Runner. The group was riding back to St. Louis on April 23 after celebrating Birdsong's 60th birthday in Jefferson City.
The Missouri River is visible from the Missouri River Runner on April 23 as it makes it way from Kansas City to St. Louis.
Many people use the Missouri River Runner to travel between St. Louis and Kansas City.
Darcie and Chad Osgood of Gardner, Kan., relax with their son, Tyler, 3, on the Missouri River Runner as they make their way to St. Louis on April 23 to watch a Cardinals game. Darcie Osgood said that taking the train is a convenient way for the whole family to take it easy while traveling and that it saves money on gas.
The lead service attendant aboard the Missouri River Runner, Rick Anderson of Chicago, doles out sodas and bags of chips to travelers on April 23. "Over spring break there are a lot of students on the train, and I sell a lot of ramen. When you have a lot of people come down for a Cardinals game, you sell a lot of cheeseburgers and beer," Anderson said of the trends in the foods that he serves.
Ticket stubs hang stuck along the luggage rack on April 23 on the Missouri River Runner. The Missouri River Runner makes daily trips from Kansas City to St. Louis.
Eric Peterson, conductor of the Missouri River Runner, waits with his assistant coordinator, Ingrid Morales, for the train to make it to its last stop on April 23 in St. Louis. The Missouri River Runner makes daily trips between Kansas City and St. Louis.
Map of Amtrak's Missouri River Runner train route.

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