Friday, June 01, 2007

The Amtrak Shuffle

The Amtrak Shuffle

I've been pretty busy with work-related travel the past few weeks.

I have had the chance to compare, however, two very different college towns: Columbia MO and Warrensburg MO.

I spent a couple days last week in Columbia for the University of Missouri Extension Annual Conference, held in various locations on campus at UM-Columbia.

Then I spent a couple days this week in Warrensburg for Congressman Ike Skelton's Procurement Conference, held in the student union at University of Central Missouri.

Of course, Columbia is a much bigger city than Warrensburg, and MU is a much bigger school than UCM (formerly CMSU). MU has 28,000 students; UCM has 11,000. Columbia has almost 100,000 residents; Warrensburg about 16,000.

But Warrensburg does have direct Amtrak service from St. Louis.

The ride took about 4 1/2 hours each way, running about a 1/2 behind schedule both ways. Of course, the train was very quiet both directions -- we are talking about mid-week service during the early summer when neither colleges nor the state legislature are in session. Only one other passenger disembarked at Warrensburg on Tuesday morning; I was the only one boarding at Warrensburg on Wednesday night.

Outside St. Louis and Kansas City, Amtrak depots are unstaffed waiting rooms with limited open hours. You must purchase tickets in advance online, or you can pay cash to the conductor upon boarding. There is no checked baggage service, not even for a college town like Warrensburg nor for the state capital, Jefferson City.

At least on the return trip, we did what the very pleasant conductor Joanne called the "Amtrak Shuffle" -- where our eastbound train pulled onto a siding, waits for the westbound Amtrak to pass, then backs up so it can return to the mainline.

We did this twice -- once at River Jct just west of Jefferson City depot; and again in Webster Groves alongside the Algonquin Golf Club.

During the trip, I contemplated the potential for commuter rail along the corridor from St. Louis to Washington MO. Of course, Washington and Kirkwood already have depots; but you'd also want to install stops at a few other locations. Perhaps one in the vicinity of Six Flags St. Louis would be nice; it could have commuter parking as well as weekend shuttle service to the theme park. Another great spot for a stop would be roughly at Deer Creek Shopping Center in Maplewood. There, you could have a walkway to the nearby Sunnen MetroLink stop, then a massive park-ride lot down below, by the long-vacant former Venture (and briefly K-Mart) store.

However, any commuter rail service would be very slow, unless the freight conflicts (and, I suppose conflicts with Amtrak) could be resolved.

East of Kingshighway, the Amtrak run was very, very slow indeed. Going west, we crawled along from the depot at 16th Street, slowly passing Grand MetroLink station, and eventually sped up after going under Vandeventer/Tower Grove. Similarly, we slowed to a crawl eastbound around Vandeventer, in fact stopping for several minutes near the former Spring Avenue viaduct. Even once we got going again, we were moving at less than half the speed of passing MetroLink trains between Grand and Jefferson!

These are still major Union Pacific switching yards, so I guess that low-speed operation makes sense. But it certainly would not be beneficial to marketing commuter rail service on this corridor.

The same is true when coming/going to Chicago. Coming through the remnants of the East St. Louis and Granite City/Madison area switching yards, Amtrak operates at very low speeds. Only after you pass I-270 north of Granite City does it speed up for a few minutes, until making the first stop north, at Alton.

Any attempt at high-speed intercity rail service or commuter rail service in the St. Louis area would require significant trackage upgrades and, ultimately, priority for passenger service.

Neither seems likely in the near future, considering that each year, the Missouri state legislature proposes eliminating the subsidy Amtrak does receive for the two trains daily each way that operate from St. Louis to Kansas City.

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