Missouri tries to unclog rail lines used by Amtrak

Friday, January 11, 2008

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -- The Missouri Department of Transportation plans to ask state lawmakers to finance a $10.6 million plan to relieve congestion on railroad tracks used by Amtrak.

The plan comes as Amtrak continues to lose riders on its Kansas City to St. Louis route, even as ridership across the country is increasing.

The Missouri Amtrak service lost more than 20,000 passengers since 2005, the highest loss of ridership in the country on a percentage basis. About 116,000 passengers used the train last year.

"When we look at every other service we run nationwide, we're enjoying record ridership," said Ray Lang, Amtrak's senior director of government affairs. "It causes us concern to have a service that bucks this great trend that we have."

MoDot's $10.6 million plan would be in addition to the $7.4 million the state pays for Amtrak service on tracks owned by Union Pacific. The dual use of the railroad lines is blamed for much of the congestion.

A recent study commissioned by MoDot found that it's getting harder to give passenger trains priority because of the increasing number of freight trains, the need for continual maintenance and sections where the mainline consists of a single track.

Union Pacific runs 50 to 60 freight trains a day on the tracks. About half of Amtrak's delays are caused by freight traffic, according to a recent study.

Critics say Union Pacific doesn't give passenger trains the required priority, but the railroad contends the corridor is simply packed with traffic.

From July through November, 38 percent of Amtrak's trains between Kansas City and St. Louis ran at least 30 minutes late, with some trains more than two hours overdue. Occasionally, Amtrak had to herd passengers onto buses to ensure they reached their destination on time.

"That line is at capacity," Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said. "Right now, it could not handle additional traffic."

The MoDot study recommended spending up to $42.5 million to alleviate congestion, but the agency is seeking to fund a much smaller plan. It wants to speed up trains between Lee's Summit and Jefferson City by adding longer sidings so freight trains can wait for Amtrak trains to pass.

The agency also wants $500,000 to equip unmanned stations with electronic signs alerting passengers to train status.

The $10.6 million would be in addition to the $7.4 million Missouri pays for Amtrak service.

Amtrak supporters concede it will be difficult to persuade lawmakers to fund the plan. Gov. Matt Blunt has not been a strong Amtrak supporter.

"This is a significant amount of money and must be weighed carefully," said Blunt's spokeswoman, Jessica Robinson. "Amtrak has a long history of failing to meet the expectations of Missourians who continue to invest their tax dollars in hopes the service will improve."

Some Missouri lawmakers say they are cautious about pouring millions into Union Pacific's tracks.

"I would not be very favorable to investing $10 million in Union Pacific to increase sidings if we didn't have some type of assurance that on-time performance would improve," said state Sen. Bill Stouffer, a Napton Republican and chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Citizens for Modern Transit, a nonprofit group based in St. Louis that promotes public transportation, has been promoting MoDOT's plan for improving service.

"If we're going to have passenger rail in Missouri ... we need to get these trains across the state on time," said Tom Shrout, the transit group's executive director.

Information from: The Kansas City Star, http://www.kcstar.com

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