On Friday nights or Saturday mornings in the wee small hours, you can usually find me down at the Amshack on 16th Street waiting for the late train from Chicago. Or, rather, waiting for one particular passenger to alight from said train. It's not an especially pleasant place to pass the time: It's cold and dreary with aggressively yellow lighting. It smells weird. There are puddles on the bathroom floor. Everyone sits stiffly, either because the seats are so uncomfortable or because they are afraid they will be mugged. I've spent happier hours waiting around hospital emergency rooms.
And I am not alone. In the words of Marc Magliari of Amtrak media relations, “We're looking forward to staging bulldozer races to knock down the existing Amshack.” (This is, according to Amtrak official Ray Lang, one of the funniest things ever said by an Amtrak employee.)
Which is why, despite all the grumblings about the inefficiency of Amtrak itself, the opening of the new Gateway Transportation Center just a few hundred yards east of the Amshack is anticipated with such joy. So much joy, in fact, that although the center is still not entirely finished, Amtrak invited state officials to travel on a special train from Jefferson City yesterday afternoon for a special preview of the new center. (It was supposed to be open by now, but when -- aside from yesterday when government officials were involved -- has Amtrak ever run on time?)
The $20 million Gateway Transportation Center is no Union Station, but it's a lovely space. In addition to Amtrak, it will host Greyhound, MetroLink and MetroBus. It has high ceilings, and the windows, although multicolored, let in lots of light. There are separate windows for ticketing and baggage. The chairs are comfortable enough. St. Louis comptroller Darlene Green, whose agency supervises the facility, has promised food concessions: Arch City Deli has already signed a contract and KFC and Pizza Hut Express are pending. Most important, the new center will have 24-hour security.
But it soon became apparent that pride in the new transportation center was not the only reason Amtrak invited the politicians to St. Louis. The number of Amtrak riders is increasing everywhere across the country -- except along the St. Louis-Kansas City corridor. “We cannot run the service in a reliable, dependent manner,” said Amtrak's Lang, “and on-time performance is the most important factor for customers.”
Lang blames Amtrak's poor performance in Missouri on railway lines that are already congested with freight trains. (Union Pacific, which owns the tracks, has promised to invest in improvements to the route.)
“People have shown they will not ride a service they cannot depend on,” said Brian Weiler, multimodal operations director for the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT). “The number of riders decreases, the revenue from ticket sales decreases, and the subsidy Amtrak requires from the government to keep going increases. In the next two or three years, if we continue down this path, the service will go away.”
That is, if the Missouri state legislature doesn't vote to allocate Amtrak more funding.
A riddle: If a train that nobody rides goes away, will anybody miss it?
But MoDOT shouldn't be too down on itself: the Chicago-St. Louis train is usually late, too.