As Amtrak's on-time performance improves, riders return

Riding Amtrak across Missouri has been as reliable as a coin flip in recent years.

Sometimes you were on time. Sometimes you weren't. And sometimes you were many hours late. But now it’s a trip that might be worth betting your time on.

Amtrak trains between Kansas City and St. Louis are running on time more frequently this year than they have since October 2006.

They have been on schedule more than 90 percent of the time, compared with years when 70 percent might be considered good on-time performance.

"The time has been much, much better," said Amtrak rider Shelia Wright from Kansas City. "I can live with an occasional delay, but when it happens on every trip it's pretty disturbing."

There have been months in recent years when one of every three trains was late, largely because they share track used by large volumes of freight trains.

Wright said there were times when a trip from Kansas City to Jefferson City would take six hours, almost twice as long as it should have taken. There was a notorious example from 2006 when a trip from Kansas City to St. Louis took 12 1/2 hours.

On-time performance has been one of the chief issues besetting Missouri passenger rail service. It led to declines in ridership even as a record number of passengers boarded Amtrak trains across the country.

"Delays were bad," said Amtrak passenger Stephen Cart of Kansas City. "It was almost to the point it was ridiculous."

The lack of reliability frustrated Missouri transportation officials who constantly went back to the General Assembly to ask for money to subsidize the service. More than once, money for Amtrak was almost cut from the state budget.

"It was not a service we were proud of," said Brian Weiler, who oversees Amtrak service for the Missouri Department of Transportation.

But in the first six months of this year, Amtrak has been running on schedule better than 90 percent of the time. In June, 97 percent of the trains ran on time — arriving within 30 minutes of their scheduled arrival. It dropped to 90 percent in July.

But Amtrak service has not been without hitches. In the spring, Amtrak used buses to get around rail construction on the tracks that Union Pacific owns and shares with Amtrak.

Still, the turnaround has amazed rail planners at the department, which subsidizes the service at a cost of $9 million this year.

Ridership has started to rebound, beating 150,000 for the year ending June 30. It was the first time Amtrak's Missouri service hit 150,000 since 2005-06 when more than 174,000 passengers boarded Amtrak trains.

Cart returned to riding Amtrak this year. He was stunned by the improvement. "I considered it remarkable. It was right on time. I was impressed."


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