KANSAS CITY – This week, Missouri's legislature is expected to decide on a funding plan to keep Amtrak service running between Kansas City and Saint Louis through mid summer. Lawmakers in the last session didn't provide enough money to operate the trains for a full year. K-C-U-R's Matt Hackworth reports on a train service riddled with problems both on the rails and in the statehouse.
When the train from St Louis finally arrives at Kansas City's Union Station, it's almost two hours late
Some passengers barely wait for the silver rail cars to stop before hopping to the platform and hustling away in the cold. Amtrak records show fewer than half of Missouri's passenger train arrived on time last year. The lackluster punctuality of Amtrak may not be for timely customers. Jack Frances of Chesterfield says he takes Amtrak because he's a retiree and has plenty of time:
'Cause I'm on there time schedule. I don't have one, so when I get here, I get here. I would suspect some people it might bother them but personally, it doesn't bother me.
Ridership figures suggest the delays do bother some people. Two years ago, around 200,000 people used the rail service. That number dropped by 15 percent in just one year. Fewer people may be flocking to passenger rail but trains crowd the tracks.
The St Louis to Kansas City corridor is one of the most congested rail corridors in the country.
Ray Lang is Amtrak's director of Governmental affairs. He describes a bottleneck between Missouri's two largest cities where coal and freight trains are squeezed into narrow spans of track. Union Pacific which owns and maintains Missouri's busy rail line is paid an incentive to make the trains run on time. But a railroad spokesman says the burden of traffic is so great that Missouri's Amtrak trains still inevitably run behind schedule. Amtrak's Ray Lang says the congestion issue needs to be addressed with more patches of double tracks and passing areas. But before major investments are made to improve the rail lines, Lang says Amtrak needs a more stable system of state funding:
The year-to-year funding debate that has gone on for the last three or four years has negatively impacted the service in such a way that people are just not sure that the train's gonna be there year in, year out. So I think creating stability in the service, a long-term commitment to the trains needs to happen.
Senator Joan Bray is among the supporters trying to bolster that commitment to Amtrak. Bray says the biggest problem in Missouri's relationship with Amtrak is that it competes for dollars out of the state's general revenue fund.
Well, the general revenue is also what funds our schools, our universities, our prisons, our mental health facilities those things that are terribly under funded now. So it's just uh Missouri's revenue doesn't have the revenue to do adequately any of this at this point. It's a struggle every year.
State officials examined other options to find a cheaper solution. The state has twice asked private companies instead of Amtrak to bid on operating the rail line. Both times, Amtrak was the only company to bid. The St Joseph contracting company Herzog pulled its proposal at the last minute. Herzog Vice President Ray Lanman says his company has successfully outbid Amtrak for other train services
We did it in Florida, several times in Florida In Dallas, the commuter service between Dallas and Ft Worth, the commuter service between Stockton and San Jose. We maintained the right of way for the metrolink system out in LA We've competed successfully against Amtrak.
But not in Missouri. One of the state's conditions involved through ticketing where customers could buy a ticket in Kansas City and ride to Chicago, for example. Lanman says Amtrak wasn't cooperative in finding ways to provide ticketing services or agreements to use train stations, a claim Amtrak denies.
This train bound for St Louis rolls out of Kansas City on time. Amtrak officials say that while Missouri can barely sustain its two trains a day, other states like Wisconsin and Illinois have made long-term commitment to trains. Both states are paying more money to expand their rail services. Missouri Rail Administrator Jan Skouby (SKOH-bee) says those states have made rail a priority, while Missouri has not. But Skouby says Missouri has steeper challenges than other Midwest states:
In my perspective the difference in Missouri is twofold. First of all, from the passenger standpoint this is one of the most congested rail lines in the nation, so it makes it very very difficult for passenger rail to really have a slot in there. The second is an understanding of why passenger rail is important to our state and to our nation as a whole.
It's hard to gauge the economic benefit of Missouri's Amtrak line. State officials and lawmakers have yet to produce a single study detailing if the line even carries an economic benefit. Still, supporters like Senator Bray say skipping funding for just one year would mean losing the lines for good. Amtrak is asking the state for $6.4 million to keep the two daily east and westbound trains through June of 2005.