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As Amtrak celebrates 40th birthday, Missouri's rail service is back on track

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 2, 2011 - As Amtrak, the nation's passenger railroad service, turned 40 on Sunday, it had reason to celebrate. Last month the company announced it had achieved 17 straight months of growth. Amtrak recorded its best March ever with more than 2.6 million passengers. And -- barring disruptions due to this spring's weather -- officials are hoping April will be the 18th.

Earlier this month Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman told a House Appropriations committee that ridership has grown more than 36 percent since 2000 and that he expects the trend to continue and even accelerate as gas prices continue to rise. "Our only restriction will be the available capacity," he said.

In Missouri, Amtrak is also on an upswing -- although it took a rebranding campaign, an infusion of social media activity, and new partnerships with cities along the route, not to mention rising gas prices, to push the train out of the cellar and back on track.

Missouri's Road Back

Amtrak operates national passenger train routes across the country, but in Missouri -- as in 14 other states -- the legislature contracts with Amtrak to provide passenger rail service within its borders.

Through the Missouri Department of Transportation, the state pays Amtrak about $8.5 million each year to run twice daily passenger service between St. Louis and Kansas City on tracks owned by Union Pacific Railroad.

"If the state didn't set aside funds to pay for the train, we would not have Amtrak service," Lamons said. "I don't think a lot of people know that."

Two years ago Amtrak's record of service between St. Louis and Kansas City was dismal. On one occasion the train's on-time record dipped to 55 percent.

"Our on-time performance was atrocious," said Lisa Lamons, railroad operations manager with the Missouri Department of Transportation's Multimodal Operations Division. "It was hit or miss. We got tons of complaints on it." Not surprisingly, ridership was plummeting.

Then officials started examining why trains were chronically late so they could find solutions. They knew, for example, that in areas with a single track, passenger trains had to wait on a sidetrack until freight trains passed.

One such bottleneck occurred west of California, Mo., where traffic narrowed to a single track along a 25-mile stretch. The sidetrack was not long enough for freight trains that had grown longer over the years, Lamons said.

With state and federal money, a new 9,000-foot railroad sidetrack was constructed at the California bottleneck. When it opened in late 2009, the sidetrack added capacity and significantly reduced delays on the route.

Even before the project was completed, though, the passenger trains' on-time record was improving.

From 79 percent in December 2008, the passenger line hit a record high of 96 percent the next month with a stellar 100 percent over Thanksgiving weekend in 2009, the first week the new sidetrack was open, Lamons said.

Lamons decided to shift marketing gears. "I had to change perception, and changing perception is like changing somebody's reality," she said. "It's very, very hard to do because one negative perception wipes out 10 positive things."

New Name, New Image

MoDOT had already launched a search for a new name for the train. The winning name -- Missouri River Runner -- announced in January 2009 opened the door to giving the route a fresh new image.

"We did a whole name change, sort of a brand change," Lamons said.

Lamons then turned to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to give the rebranded route exposure to new audiences to build ridership.

"It was all in the timing. Gas prices at that time were high, and they were rising," she said. "That was on our side. And on-time performance started creeping up."

MoDOT also upgraded its website. "We really went full-out trying to reach as many people as we could letting them know (the train) is an alternative," Lamons said. "They found it's inexpensive and a fun way to take a trip."

Since MoDOT has no budget for marketing -- "We're lucky if we have enough money to run the train," she says -- Lamons asked if she could work more closely with Amtrak's marketing people. Amtrak agreed.

The result: new promos such as "Catch a Game, Catch a Train," a contest that highlighted how easy it is to take a train to a ball game to encourage people to do so.

Lamons visited tourism offices and the mayors of towns served by Amtrak asking for their help in getting people excited about visiting places in Missouri. The recession also helped the cause. "People were trying to save their money," she said. "They weren't taking big family vacations." The campaign to take in-state vacations gained steam.

The real barometer of success came last month when Amtrak doubled the number of cars on the River Runner route to accommodate greater demand. "That's a big thing for us to add train cars," Lamons said.

'Supersizing' the Train

While adding cars was a "big thing" for Missouri, it's nothing out of the ordinary for Amtrak which adds or subtracts trains across the country as needed, said Marc Magliari, Amtrak media relations manager. By looking at reservations and inquiries to the website, Amtrak officials know how trains are selling, he said.

"That's also how we price them," he added.

Keeping an eye on demand allows Amtrak to increase or decrease the size of a train as needed. "We know Friday is pretty busy," Magliari said. "We know Tuesdays aren't as busy so we try to size the train appropriately."

Amtrak is constantly monitoring how trains are selling and pooling equipment, he said. That's why the Texas Eagle might have extra cars between Chicago and St. Louis but not when the train continues to Fort Worth.

"One of the things that happens with trains that can't happen with other modes (of transportation) is you can add or subtract capacity without adding lots of additional cost," Magliari said. "You can't make a bus bigger and you can't make plane bigger but you can make a train bigger or smaller depending on demand."

So at certain times of the year, like spring break when demand is heavy, Amtrak "supersizes" the train, he said. Amtrak's flexibility means the company can make those changes even though "spring break" is a moveable event.

"If it's spring break time in Michigan, and it's not spring break time in Missouri, after fulfilling our contract requirements with Missouri, we can upsize the train to Michigan," he said. "Capacity is always shifting within the limited equipment pool we have."

Amtrak Ticket Prices

Like other forms of public transportation, train fares don't cover all of the costs of operation, Brian Weiler, multimodal director for MoDOT, said. But increased ticket revenue, thanks to more passengers and a 5-10 percent fare increase last year, means the program probably won't need more than the $8.5 million appropriation the legislation gave it last year.

Weiler is hopeful ridership will grow even more as Amtrak adds amenities to the trains. "Our goal is to try to grow the revenue as much as possible to keep the state's cost as absolutely low as possible," he said. "We've kind of turned that corner where we're generating enough ticket revenue that we're holding our own."

Even with a 5-to-10 percent fare increase last year, ticket prices remain attractive, Weiler said. "We still think it's a very good bargain especially with increased gas prices," he added.

But how do Amtrak ticket prices compare with other transportation? That depends on the yardstick you use, Magliari said.

Using the IRS mile reimbursement rate for 275 miles between St. Louis and Chicago, the train compares favorably with driving, he said. "And that's before you add on the cost of parking at $15-20 a day and, depending on what route you take, tolls," he added.

"The fact is that for most people on most days, if they're traveling as one or two people, we are very competitive with both air and driving."

Magliari discounts competition from Johnny-come-lately buses offering service between places like St. Louis and Chicago at bargain basement rates but with less flexibility and no stations.

One of the new carriers only books over the internet, giving the passenger only one way to pay, he said. "They don't provide any place for you to wait -- except the curb."

He admits Amtrak is "not at that price point" and adds: "But despite the existence of those kinds of carriers, our ridership continues to grow. The fact is we have added frequencies; they have reduced frequencies."

Amtrak actually takes a 20 percent of the market of those who fly or take the train between Chicago and St. Louis. And that's with only five trains a day and more flights than that number leaving from Lambert daily, Magliari said.

"As we get that number of trains up, we'll take more market share," Magliari said.

Merlin Weber of DeSoto is a happy Amtrak passenger who takes the train from Kirkwood to Lee's Summit a few times a year to visit her son who lives in Blue Springs.

She used to drive but after her husband died a few years ago her son talked her into taking the train. She loves it. "I can doze, I can read, I can relax," she said. "It's convenient, and unless they raise the prices, it's cheaper to ride the train than to fill the gas tank."

An added perk is that she can get a pass from the station allowing her to park in Kirkwood without charge or being towed.

And, for any riders, the ability to book a train almost a full year in advance means that passengers can lock a ticket in at current prices.

"If you want to, say, travel at Thanksgiving, you have no idea what your gasoline is going to cost you at Thanksgiving," Magliari said. "But you could buy an Amtrak ticket right now for travel on Nov. 23 and know exactly what it's going to cost you to go to Grandma's house at Thanksgiving."

Kathie Sutin, a freelance writer in St. Louis, covers transportation.