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Amtrak riders adjust travel plans after a reduction in the Missouri River Runner train service

Passengers board an Amtrak train early morning Saturday, January 8, 2021 at Union Station in Kansas City.
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Passengers board an Amtrak train early morning Saturday, January 8, 2022, at Union Station in Kansas City.

On Monday, Amtrak cut services between Kansas City and St. Louis by half. Now only one round trip per day is offered, and many riders say they are having to change their travel or work plans. 

Before Monday, four Amtrak passenger trains ran the Missouri River Runner route between Kansas City and St. Louis. Two trains would depart each city, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Now, federal and state COVID relief dollars, which funded the twice-daily service, have run out, cutting the number of trips in half.

Federal law requires states to pay a share of certain Amtrak services. Missouri lawmakers budgeted nearly $11 million for the River Runner, which is not enough money to fund both routes.

The reduction in trips and train departure times is causing a headache for many who use the service. Vickie Barnes recently moved from Kansas City to St. Louis. She said she rides the River Runner two or three times a month for work.

Barnes said the reduced schedule makes it harder for her plan her workday. In St. Louis, the departure time for the River Runner is 4 p.m., which arrives in Kansas City around 9:30 p.m.

“I like to get here earlier during the day,” said Barnes. “When I was traveling this time, I actually was scheduled to come in from 4 to 9:50 and I didn’t get in here until almost 11 o’clock. Had I been able to come in from 8 a.m., I could have arrived at 2 and it would have made my work day on Friday a lot easier.”

Barnes said she loves to travel by train, but if twice-daily service does not return she will have to fly instead, which costs more.

“I’m not quite sure what is going on, but I hope they figure it out,” said Barnes.

River Runner trips were also reduced to once-daily round trips in March 2020 as a response to falling ridership from COVID-19. In July 2021, full service resumed through December.

Amtrak ridership numbers for the Missouri River Runner have not been in the normal range for a few years now, according to Amtrak reports. Amtrak’s 2018 fiscal year, which starts in October, was the last year without major ridership interruptions, and the Missouri River Runner route had 169,471 passengers.

Ridership decreased in 2019 after flooding in Missouri caused route closures. When the pandemic hit in 2020, ridership decreased again, with only 86,398 riders during the fiscal year.

For 2021, ridership totals are even worse for the Missouri River Runner, likely due to COVID-19. From September 2020 to October 2021, there were only 77,179 passengers.

Johnnie Scott is a Kansas City-based truck driver who rides the train to St. Louis, Chicago and Washington to take over trucking routes. He was waiting at Union Station Saturday morning to board a train to St. Louis.

Scott said his business has slowed down because of COVID, so he does not have to use the train as much as he did in the past. But when the pandemic subsides, he’s worried he will run into scheduling issues.

“It’s been a week now, and it’s been the same thing. There used to be two or three trains a day, and now there’s just one,” said Scott.

Scott said other than the train, he really does not have a lot of other travel options. Since he travels to pick up and return trucks, he can’t use his own vehicle and a rental car would be the next best option. But he said the train is much more affordable, so for now he will just have to work around the scheduling reduction.

Amy Gebken, an overnight nurse from the St. Louis area, said she is also struggling with the new schedule. She uses the train to visit a friend in Kansas City at least three times a year, and relies on her friend to pick her up from the station when she arrives. Gebken said her friend cannot drive at night, though, and now the only train from St. Louis arrives after dark.

“I’m not used to taking the train from St. Louis in the evening, I don’t like that,” said Gebken. “She’s a morning person and I’m a night person, it’s just the opposite of what we both want.”

Gebken said that she now has to Uber to her friend’s apartment and she hopes the twice-daily trips will return soon.

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga reports on health disparities in access and health outcomes in both rural and urban areas.
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