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Amtrak service is now speedier from St. Louis to Chicago — but less frequent to Kansas City

Chuck Gomez
The Missouri River Runner used to make two daily round trips between St. Louis and Kansas City. As of this week, due to a funding issue at the state level, service has been reduced to one trip each way per day.

As of Monday morning, Amtrak service between St. Louis and Kansas City was reduced by 50%, with Amtrak citing a state-level decision as the impetus. What used to be two round trips each day by passenger trains will now be limited to one per day — with an eastbound departure in Kansas City every morning and a westbound departure in St. Louis in the afternoon.

“A federal law requires states to pay a portion of the cost of certain Amtrak trains,” a recent Amtrak announcement stated about the change. “Missouri’s state budget does not include funding for continuing to operate two Missouri River Runner round-trip trains.”

Marc Magliari is Amtrak's Chicago-based spokesperson.

Chicago-based spokesman Marc Magliari called the cut “a pretty significant loss” — and one that comes even as Missourians express interest in expanding Amtrak service in light of the passage of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill.

Magliari explained that for shorter Amtrak routes like the Missouri River Runner, a portion of the cost is paid by the state — in this case via the Missouri Department of Transportation — and that “for many years, MoDOT was working with an appropriation from Jefferson City that really wasn’t enough.”

“And they’d accumulated a certain amount of debt,” Magliari said Tuesday on St. Louis on the Air. “The legislature in Jefferson City this past year decided, ‘We’re going to catch up with our bills; we’re not going to incur any debt.’ But they didn't appropriate enough to run both round trips.”

The reduction prevents St. Louisans from taking day trips through the state, he added.

“By the time you get to mid-Missouri, especially this time of year — it’s dark. And it’s a huge loss of utility for the service,” Magliari explained. “There are people [with] the Kirkwood Chamber of Commerce [and] Citizens for Modern Transit, and we’re certainly helping from our end, [working] with the legislature to come up with the funding to restore the second round trip.”

An Amtrak train approaches the Arcadia Valley Station in Ironton, Missouri.
An Amtrak train approaches the Arcadia Valley Station in Ironton, Missouri.

Between the lower service level and ongoing pandemic recovery, Magliari sees challenges ahead, even as some areas along the route are being envisioned by investors as “the Napa of the Midwest.”

“I’m looking at an article here from a couple who says they want to invest $100 million out in the Augusta area built on people coming out there for the day, perhaps, and coming back,” Magliari said. “And that can't happen with one round trip.”

On the other side of the Mississippi River, in Illinois, Amtrak has better news: In December, some of the passenger trains that make trips between St. Louis and Chicago began traveling at up to 90 mph. And over the next 12 to 18 months, Amtrak announced, the maximum authorized speed along the corridor is expected to increase to 110 mph.

Magliari said that for travelers between the Gateway and Windy cities, the speedier trains make rail a significant competitor when it comes to options for making the trip — even, he added, taking into account how fast some drivers speed along Interstate 55.

2022 brings changes for St. Louis-area rail passengers
Listen as Amtrak's Marc Magliari talks with host Sarah Fenske about changes in the bi-state region.

“Right now the travel time is scheduled for five hours and six minutes at the fastest, which is faster than you can legally drive between Chicago and St. Louis, especially during some of the weather events between both places and traffic here and traffic there,” he said. “We're going to work to get that closer to 4:45, or maybe even 4:30.”

If Amtrak can get the trains going up to 110 mph in another 12 to 18 months (similar to the speeds some trains are already traveling at in parts of Michigan and Indiana), the in-transit time could shrink further.

“There’s lots of possibility and growth out there,” Magliari told host Sarah Fenske.

Even in Missouri, he added, there is some exciting news: “newer, better, faster, cleaner locomotives” and fresh rail cars with more ADA compliance and features like built-in bike racks (Katy Trail, anyone?).

“So [there’s] lots of good things happening now… but it’s just the step backwards in Missouri [with fewer round trips] that so many of us find so disappointing.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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