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Rescue on the rails (column)

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Posted on Sun, Feb. 15, 2004

Missouri lawmakers should find foresight to salvage Amtrak


While Missouri legislators threaten to cut Amtrak service between Kansas City and St. Louis to an unacceptable one train a day, planners across the Midwest are drafting real rail improvements.

Trains need better, more frequent schedules, improved reliability and lower-priced tickets to compete as a viable transit system. Unfortunately, Missouri legislators so far aren't helping on any front.

A reasonable person might look to trains as a way to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil, or as a necessity for those without cars, or as a safe, comfortable, lower-polluting way to travel. But a Missouri House Budget Committee isn't so reasonable.

Last week it rejected Amtrak's request for an additional $1.2 million. Amtrak services cost $6.2 million, but the state has appropriated just $5 million. If that decision stands, two daily trains could drop to one.

It would mean riders could leave Kansas City only in the morning and St. Louis only in the afternoon. Miss a train under that setup and you've lost a whole day. Such inflexibility and the demise of same-day roundtrips would surely drive away most customers.

Amtrak doesn't deny its customer-service problems. Trains run late a lot. Last year, only 41 percent of the Missouri trains arrived on time, while Amtrak averaged a 74 percent on-time record nationally. In the last three months of 2003, Missouri trains crawled into stations on time only 28 percent of the time, mostly because of major track repairs by Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the track.

Word of delays gets around and scares customers away. Plus, a $5 ticket surcharge added last year in Missouri makes travel more expensive. To cut operating costs, ticket agents no longer work at two stations, Jefferson City and Kirkwood, leaving passengers to fend for themselves. (Volunteers now try to cover the stations to help customers.)

But the problems aren't all Amtrak's fault. Union Pacific is spending millions of dollars on track upgrades and repairs, but its congested freight service and limited tracks hurt on-time Amtrak performance. Any solution is costly, Missouri's budget is tight, and lawmakers who live away from the train route don't care.

If Missouri lawmakers think Amtrak's $6.2 million bill to the state is expensive, they should look at other transportation projects. Scout highway warning system: $40 million. KC's Triangle interchange: $230 million.

Other states are adding trains and fixing tracks. Why not Missouri?

California, Oregon, Washington and Illinois are adding train service. Michigan is restoring agents to three cities' train stations.

Midwest states, including wishful thinkers from Missouri's Department of Transportation, are part of a Midwest Regional Rail Initiative. They'd like five daily trains speeding across Missouri at 79 mph (rather than the more common 30 mph). Missouri is part of the consortium of nine states that hope to link cities across the Midwest.

Extra trains would make schedules attractive to both business and tourists. The plans, of course, hinge on federal dollars to help pay. And MoDOT hopes the state will consider a public-private joint venture with Union Pacific to continue upgrades on rail lines and add turnoffs that would remove slowdowns for Amtrak or freight.

A decade ago, federal dollars covered a large share of the Kansas City-St. Louis train service. Now Missouri picks up all operating costs, except capital and overhead.

Now is not the time to give up on passenger rail travel. Much-needed improvements on Interstate 70 are years away. In many cities across Missouri, Amtrak is the only public transit. Jefferson City is in that spot. And some of Amtrak's travelers have no other option.

While highways and airlines continue to collect billions of dollars from the federal treasury, it makes sense for rail to collect some dollars, too.

In 2003, the federal government sent $32 billion to highways, $14 billion to aviation and not quite $1 billion to Amtrak.

The Missouri legislature should salvage Amtrak. Republican Sen. John Griesheimer of Washington, Mo., who worked to win an Amtrak stop in his hometown in 1995, is confident the Senate will keep the two-a-day trains rolling. If not, he and others promise a filibuster.

For Amtrak to succeed, its riders need more assurances that trains are here to stay, that on-time arrivals will improve and that prices will be competitive with flights or drives. With a little vision, Missouri could save its trains.

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