Friday, May 05, 2006

Ridin' the Rails

Ridin' the Rails

Did you know the first Railway Post Office in the U.S. operated from Hannibal to St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1862?

Neither town is served by Amtrak today. RPO service was phased out nationwide by 1977.

I've long been a fan of the railroads. Living in St. Louis, I guess it's not surprising. For a few years in the 1960s, my dad even worked as a clerk for the Mo Pac at 13th and Olive downtown - a building now slated for conversion to pricey condos under the moniker "Park Pacific".

Still, our fair city is not really the best place to catch a train these days.

Passenger rail service at Saint Louis Union Station ceased in 1978 -- the year I was born.

About ten years later, in 1988, I set foot in Union Station for the first time - when it was a relatively new shopping mall. I attended the "Magnet School Fair," an event the St. Louis Public Schools arranged to promote the various magnet school programs. I was already a student at Mallinckrodt ABI.

That was also the first time I rode a Bi-State bus: the #11 Chippewa, I believe. I still remember seeing the janitorial supplies in the window of Chippewa Products and thinking: wow, there's actually a store where you can buy that stuff?

The current St. Louis Amtrak station is small and hard-to-find, but a definite step up from the "Amshack" operated from 1978 until 2004. Hopefully, the intermodal transportation center now (finally!) under construction will replace it very soon, providing a direct connection to MetroLink, MetroBuses, and Greyhound. It can't come soon enough!

Of course, Amtrak is not exactly in the best financial condition. While MODOT does subsidize the route from StL to Kansas City, that's pretty much the only route serving Missouri in a significant way.

You can ride the Texas Eagle to Poplar Bluff. It arrives there about 1 AM daily; and departs to come back to STL about 3 AM daily. Not especially convenient hours.

You can get to La Plata, MO - about 15 miles south of Kirksville where Truman State is located - via the Southwest Chief.

But to get there from STL, you need to ride one of the Chicago-bound trains to Springfield, IL or Bloomington-Normal, IL; then catch an Amtrak-contracted bus to Galesburg, IL; and then catch the Chief west to La Plata. A full-day affair, including wait times.

Until 1997, the Chief still stopped at Marceline, MO -- hometown of Walt Disney.

I've never tried either of those trips, but I have gone to Jefferson City (for a lobbying day) and Sedalia (for the state fair) by Amtrak. Both were from the prettier - but now unstaffed! - Kirkwood depot.

My recent trip to Chicago was my first from the 'interim' Amtrak stop in downtown St. Louis.

Hopefully it'll be the last. I don't know the timetable for the completion of the Intermodal Center, but it's been in planning for a solid 15 years. At one point, a location near Jefferson Avenue was considered.

Anyway, I'm not holding my breath; but I'm hoping someday St. Louis can at least have a train depot worthy of, say, Springfield, Illinois!

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