A Passenger Rail Network for St. Louis

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America has done a great job connecting its places via the Interstate highway network. Unfortunately the passenger rail network has been left to decay. Stimulus money has helped enhance some existing routes such as 110 mph service STL-CHI and some new service such as Chicago to the Quad cities. But when one looks at the Amtrak route map one sees in the Midwest it’s an “all trains go to Chicago” hub scheme rather than a network connecting major cities with each other as the highways do. The Amtrak route map should look like the red lined map below.

Amtrak Routes with Stl Network additions

Increasingly airlines aren’t interested in short routes especially if both destinations are not a hub. Driving cannot be productive time. Passenger rail can fill the gap for both business and leisure travelers. We’re better off with more travel choices and stronger connections between cities. Riders are showing up. Amtrak keeps setting records. Capacity is becoming an issue; new rolling stock is on order. Several routes were operationally profitable last quarter.

Osage River Bridge

Unlike Missouri’s recent highway expansions, the small improvements to the St. Louis to Kansas City line have resulted in much higher on-time percentage (64% in 2008 to ~90% today), which have helped boost ridership from a bottom of 110k in 2007 to 200k in 2013. A siding was added near California, MO at a cost of $8.1M ($4.8M from MO, $3.3M from the FRA). A proper station in St. Louis no doubt has helped too. A second bridge at Osage River ($28M) opened last year and completes the double-tracking from St. Louis to Jefferson City, relieving another bottle-neck. Small incremental improvements are paying off.

Frank DeGraaf proposed a true HSR link between St. Louis and Kansas City with an estimated cost of $8.7 billion. While that would be great (along with an HSR route to Chicago), I suggest a more incremental approach. Let’s see what we could achieve with much less money.

First go to four a day St. Louis to Kansas City. Union Pacific would insist on double-tracking the route west of Jefferson City. MoDOT estimates this plus train sets would cost $400M. I’m skeptical that that’s really necessary, but let’s go with that. Currently Missouri spends $8M to operate the route, so double that for $16M. Before you scream subsidy just think we’re talking about $2B to rebuild and many more millions to maintain I-70 with a general sales tax. The subsidy may end up being less as Illinois saw a more than one-to-one increase in ridership after adding two new dailies to the STL-CHI service. The upgrades west of Jeff City would save some time with some of the route being class 5, 90 mph capable. The two new trains could be limited, that is skipping stations, to save more time (STL, KWD, JEF, LEE, IDP, KCY).

Mark Twain Zephyr{Hope we can make better time ~2.5 hours STL-QCY. Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad AKA Burlington Route}

Extend the Carl Sandburg and Illinois Zephyr (rename it the Mark Twain Zephyr) from Quincy to St. Louis via St. Charles. The Hannibal Convention & Visitors Bureau has been lobbying for service to extend from Quincy across the river. I say run it all the way to St. Louis. This allows for riders to connect with the California Zephyr and Southwest Chief in Galesburg, as well as riders originating in between, a route to St. Louis. At first it could run through West Alton, but with about 5 miles of new track it could serve St. Charles and Lambert Airport. This also sets up nicely for commuter rail from St. Charles County, which I prefer over extending Metrolink.

So that’s 117 miles of track to upgrade to class 4, 79 mph at about $2M per mile plus 5 miles of new right-of-way at $10M per mile it comes out to $284M for track and crossing upgrades, and stations. No new rolling stock needed. I’m excluding any big bridge replacements, the trains already cross the Mississippi to turn around. Operating subsidies I figure would be about $2M a year as Illinois already pays for Chicago to Quincy. With Quincy and Hannibal connected to Lambert Airport, we can end the Essential Air Service subsidy and use the $2M per year in lieu of MO’s contribution.

Mississippi View
{Imagine taking the train along the Mississippi River up to Louisiana or Hannibal}

Effingham and Terre Haute
{Effingham just needs a paved boarding area. Terre Haute has a great station location north of ISU ready to develop}

Two a day to Indianapolis (Call them the Brickyard Zephyr and the Gateway City Express) with a suburban station in Collinsville. CSX is taking good care of the route to Indy so I’m estimating $1M per mile for track and crossing upgrades, and stations; 236 miles or $236M. Stops in Collinsville, Highland, Vandalia, Effingham (connects with City of New Orleans, Saluki, and Illinois Service), Terre Haute, Green Castle, Indianapolis Int’l Airport, and Downtown Indy. This would also make it possible to reroute the Cardinal providing a one-seat route to Washington DC. Two train sets, $30M. Operating subsidy $8M. I propose $1M from MO, $3M from Il, $1M from Indiana State University, $1M from DePaw University, and $2M from Indiana.

Two a day to Memphis (call them the Memphis Belle and Spirit of St. Louis) with a suburban station in Belleville. This would run on the Canadian National line from St. Louis to Du Quoin with a stop in Marisa. The tracks look rough so I’ll estimate $2M per mile for class 4 rails for 70 miles, $140M. After Du Quoin it would run on the same tracks as the City of New Orleans. The CoNO averages 44 mph from Carbondale to Memphis, so I’m guessing the tracks could use some upgrading at $1M per mile, or $220M. Two new trains sets, $30M. Operating subsidy $8M, split $1M MO, $4M IL, $1M SIUC, $2M TN.

St. Louis to Nashville (Music City and Mound City)? The route could be STL, Centralia, Mt. Vernon, Evansville, Madisonville, Hopkinsville, and Nashville. 300 miles at $2M a mile, $600M plus two train sets, $30M. $8M in operating subsidy, $1M MO, $2M IL, $2M IN, $1M KY, $2M TN. It’s too expensive, so I’ll leave it out for now.

St. Louis to Springfield, MO, Tulsa and OKC (OK Sooner and Ozark Express)? MoDOT did a study, and just to Springfield, with most of the route less than 50 mph capable, would be a six hour trip attracting only 34,000 annual ridership (KCY-STL does 200,000). Upgrades of the 234 mile route at $2M a mile is $468M. A seven hour trip to OKC (541 miles. An 11-hour trip in 1955) would require 110 mph service, even more $. Too expensive.

{Sorry, couldn’t find any examples of a modern major rail bridge in America because we haven’t built any! Hell Gate Bridge in NYC – Paul Anthony Moore}

The big enchilada will be a new rail bridge over the Mississippi. This is needed without my proposed additional traffic. With my additions and Illinois’ desire to increase STL-CHI service to nine a day, there would be an additional 18 passenger trains a day (a total of 28) crossing the Mississippi. If we are ever to hope for a lot more and reliable service to the east, the new bridge must have dedicated passenger tracks, lest we end up with the bottlenecks that plague Chicago. I suspect the bridge will cost more than $1B. I would expect the freight railroads to pay a significant portion of it.

We’d get all this new service for $1.34B (new bridge not included) and $26M in operating subsidies, far less than DeGraaf’s HSR plan and about the same as the 110 mph upgrade for STL-CHI. Four major metro areas (eight million people) and points in between would be better connected; all the more people that can come to St. Louis!

Rail maps so you can play the game at home!

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  • Evan

    I have been dreaming the same dream my friend. But i have been dreaming up a luxury steam engine train that runs on steam. Its an energy efficient passenger train setup with boxcar suites. The train would look as one did in the 1880s with many advancements buit into it. I lack investors but have already been plotting a scenic route from Springfield MO, up to Jefferson City MO. You will pass along the great ozark mountains and across Truman Lake on one of the largest and most beautiful wooden bridges. My ultimate dream is to open up 3 other trains throughout our great and natural state of Missouri. Providing luxury service at a reasonable price.

  • Stargazer

    Why not send the Memphis bound train south along the BNSF line? That way you could tie Cape Girardeau into the loop.

  • Steve V.

    I am old enough to remember passenger service on both the NYC and PRR between STL and IND, with each RR running 3-4 trains in each direction! I had the pleasure of riding over both routes many times. But I never dreamed that someday there would be no service between these points, let alone abandonment of the old NYC between Pana and Paris. NYC’s best trains were the Southwestern and Knickerbocker; PRR’s were the Spirit of St. Louis and Penn Texas. Despite no passenger service between these points since 1979, the remaining route (PRR-Terre Haute-NYC) is an excellent one for future Amtrak expansion. The station at Effingham could again accommodate east-west traffic. I believe that the old NYC station at Greencastle is still intact. Terre Haute would need a station. While I am sure that many cities along this route would be quite supportive of revived service, I agree that the Staete of Illinois would be less excited for reasons already stated in another post (by STLEnginerd). Perhaps a grassroots effort is needed.

  • Andrew Horwat

    As someone who grew up in the DC area, I’ve been a proponent of rail travel expanding everywhere I’ve lived. St. Louis, more than most places I’ve lived across the US, stands out as a location where a more unifying rail system could BOOM almost immediately.

    Though the argument from “life-ers” about STL itself being a “you can get anywhere in 30 mins…” city would remain, the expansion of commuter rail to the “just-too-far-away-to-live-in-and-work-in-Saint-Louis” would, undoubtedly be advantageous to a decent population

  • btownmoon

    Interesting ideas. Regarding the location of the Terre Haute station: is that the location of a prior station? If you move it 4-5 blocks west, it could serve the existing north/south rail lines as well as the east/west, which might be useful in the future.

  • Alex Devlin

    This is an idea I have always had. Extending the Quincy line down to Jefferson City. If you did this it would connect Columbia, Missouri directly to St.Louis, Kansas City, and Chicago, 3 cities known for attracting large numbers of Mizzou students. Each holiday thousands of students start searching for a way home, while Jeff City is close many students still dont have direct access to Amtrak. I guarantee they would see profit within a year. It would look something like this.

    • Alex Devlin

      I guess STL and KC wouldn’t be direct form Columbia but still a lot more accessible.

    • rgbose

      A fine idea as the IL routes see great ridership from ISU and UofI. Check out the Missouri rail map. Unfortunately there are no existing rail routes that follow that path so it’d be really expensive. I’m surprised they’d put the big state university in a city so poorly served by rail.

      • STLEnginerd

        Kinda bypasses St. Louis but its definitely a reasonable proposal. while you are at it you might extend it through Springfield and Fayetteville AK and the turn stopping at Tulsa and OKC. Same problem as the STL to Minneapolis problem. I don’t see a direct rail path between Columbia and Jeff City so it would require new rail beds and thus $$$.

    • Julian Hall

      It would take a while to do this because there is no track from Columbia to Jefferson City. In fact, the only track that comes into Columbia is a tiny spur track that is barely used and also there is no track coming from the north into Jefferson City it is all east and west track.

    • Julian Hall

      But, I am totally with you Alex on the idea. I think it would be great to have more Missouri cities connected by rail.

  • James

    One way to cut the costs of this proposal would be to only upgrade the track from St. Louis to Centralia to carry both the Memphis and Indianapolis bound trains, instead of upgrading St. Louis to Effingham and St. Louis to DuQuoin track. That would shave about 75 miles off the the proposed trackage, and be a

    • rgbose

      Certainly a cheaper idea. That’d add about 15 miles in length to the STL-Indy route plus turning around in Centralia would be awkward (you’d need engines on either end to avoid that, which is already happening on some of the Lincoln service trains so not unheard of), and 30 miles to the STL-MEM route.

  • All but Tulsa and Minneapolis are within 350 miles of St. Louis (as the crow flies), per this map.

    The one thing I notice is how many straight line points from major cities lead right through STL.

    Still can’t help to think “what could have been” if St. Louis’ bridge plans hadn’t been contested so long. Maybe Chicago doesn’t get the hub status it now has and our own station stays viable longer.

    Oh well!

  • Steven Roberts

    Enjoyed reading your article Richard!

    I really like the idea of expanding rail service from STL-IND, STL-MEM, STL-NSH, STL-QNC. I predict that eventually as the supply of inexpensive carbon base fuels decrease and vehicle and air fuel increase, a shift to more federal and state dollars to fund rail and high speed rail will also increase. There is a tipping point to how much people are willing to spend to drive vs taking rail. The question is how much will that be? $6/gallon? $8? $10? Higher? When it costs a family of 5 $180 to fill up their mini-van for a vacation to Chicago and another $180 to get back home, that train service will start looking a lot more attractive to them. When the average Joe starts complaining about gas prices, and the politicians realize there isn’t much they can do to lower gas prices anymore, we will see more rail. Personally, I can’t wait for that day.

    • Nat76

      There are really three variables at play here. One is the fuel cost. The second is the degree to which policy makers are willing to subsidize these types of ventures. All transit (auto-centric included) is subsidized, but policy makers must have the appetite to shift to rail. These two points get discussed extensively.
      The third point is perhaps more important than the other two and is often ignored, which is connectivity must exist not only between rail stations but connection from ultimate points of departure and arrival to and from rail stations (homes, businesses, hotels, etc.)…for the greatest number of people practical at least.
      Metro Chicago is a rail hub not only because it is 3-4 time the size of metro St. Louis, but also because it is much more dense and connected internally via transit options. If 300,000 people here can get to a rail station using transit in a reasonable time (maybe 45 min), then in Chicago that number is more like 4 million. I’m willing to sacrifice mobility once I get somewhere (and $$$) to fly for significant time savings on journeys of a certain distance. For shorter trips, as an example, at $8/gallon, the price to transport 2 people from STL to KC on AMTRAK is roughly the same as driving. I get the convenience of not having to drive, but I also lose time and suffer the inconvenience of getting to and from stations.
      The Midwest needs more infill density if it will ever be viewed as a serious participant in the AMTRAK network outside of the Chicago hub routes.

    • Steve Kluth

      The family market is irrelevant. What is important is to sell to the business traveler and other short haul commuters (e.g., college students) that make up the bulk of the potential customer base. If the trip takes about the same time and the cost is reasonable, businesses have no issues with employees using trains vice planes or POV. Length of time per trip needs to be reduced and 70 mph trains will not cut it between regional hubs. If the trains can average 100-120 mph, Chicago is just over three hours and both KC and Indy are about 2.5 hours. This would be very attractive to the business customer.

      • rgbose

        Agree the focus should be on the single traveler as it is already cheaper than driving for one person plus with wifi and free hands you can do work. I do see plenty of families riding though. Nowadays kids have to be strapped in a car seat up to higher ages than back in my day. On the train they are free to move around. Maybe they’ll actually look out the window or play a card game with their parents instead of staring at a video screen for the duration.

    • Bradley Kramer

      Regarding St. Louis to Indianapolis, I would like to see The Cardinal do a southwest turn in Indianapolis, and travel to St. Louis. Better St. Louis than Chicago, “The Murder Capital of The World”.

  • dempster holland

    Two points:
    I recall reading somewhere that a contributing factor to the decline in east-west
    passenger rail traffic through St Louis was the decline in north south feeder routes,
    eg from southern Missouri and Iowa
    Second, you make a good point about combining through trains with commu-
    ter trains on the same route. Metro has claimed that it will explore this option if
    there is improved high speed rail from Kirkwood-Pacific and Alton to downtown

  • thisissilly

    train needs to go STL to KC via Columbia, not Jeff City…so many more people want to go to Columbia than Jeff City (probably 15000 students from the two major metros go to Mizzou)

    • John R

      In a rail world it would be awesome to have a true high-speed express line with STL-COL-KC stops only. And the charm of the Missouri River Runner with all the stops in Missouri Wine Country, etc.

  • STLEnginerd

    It seems like Illinois carries most of the cost burben in your plan. Even though the tracks lay through their state, realistically its probably very hard for them dto develop any excitement for connecting St. Louis to Indianapolis. The majority benificiaries are St. Louis in Missouri and Indianapolis in Indiana. I think for that route to happen there will HAVE to be a major federal contribution to pick up their slack. I really like the route and agree it should be a priority but its not going to be an Illinois priority.

    As far as th Mark Twain Zephyr, its got to be hard to build a line without a solid end point. There is already a well established STL to CHI route. Is there precedent in the US for mutiple Amtrack routes ending at the same major city. Its like imagining a STL to KC line with one through Columbia and one through Jefferson CIty. Eventually someone has to choose which one is more important to serve. Having both isn’t really an option.
    And the fact we don’t have a direct route to Memphis is absurd. How does Illinois get Amtrack direct to Memphis and St. Louis doesn’t. Oh thats right Illinois made it a state priority to connect Chicago to the rest of the state, and Missouri never did.

    • rgbose

      Any significant rail improvement will involve Federal dollars.
      Anyone going from STL all the way to CHI or vice versa would take the current route through SPI, unless they’re in it for the scenery. You can go from CHI-WAS via the Capital Limited or the Cardinal. The Palmetto, Silver Meteor, and Silver Star take different routs from WAS to Savannah. I’m sure Amtrak is happy to run as long as operations are adequately subsidized, though getting Fed capital funds might be harder because of the same endpoints. An STL-CHI route via QCY is about trips where at least one destination is in between plus connections to LDs in Galesburg.
      IL puts nothing in the CoNO service.

    • Steven Roberts

      For the route you mention (Mark Twain Zephyr), I agree that multiple
      routes to STL to CHI probably wouldn’t happen, so how about the route
      continues north to Des Moines, then to Minneapolis/St. Paul? Perhaps a station can intersect with the California route so passengers have the option to change trains if needed?

      • STLEnginerd

        Good point with St. Louis to Minneaplolis perhaps the St. Louis to Quincy route could be sold as a Phase I for a route to Minneapolis. Plus it mostly bypasses IL which means IMO its a little more likely to happen. It could hit the biggest towns in Iowa so Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota would share most of the cost.

        • rgbose

          Was there ever STL-MSP service? I don’t see an obvious route on the rail maps.

          • STLEnginerd

            There does seem to be a lack of rail connection between Burlington and Davenport. Seems like there should be though…

      • Bradley Kramer

        I like the idea of having a train travel north from St. Louis to Des Moines to Minneapolis/St. Paul. Not sure what speed the Fort Madison to Des Moines track can handle. If slow, that segment could be used for overnight travel.

  • rgbose

    My $/mi estimates may be a little low. A few planing commissions in Louisiana commissioned a study of a Baton Rouge to New Orleans line which would cost about $4M/mi for 79 mph service, though there is an especially bad stretch that probably isn’t the case for any of the lines I propose.
    Louisiana rail map. The route is mainly on the KCS tracks.

  • Don

    Having lived in the area all my life, I think your route map is very good. The Mid-west is perfectly situated for regional rail service exactly as you describe. I’ve long been frustrated by complete lack of political leadership for modern rail service even as we throw billions upon billions at highways.

    While I think you are thinking too small (our goal should be at least 110mph track on any upgrades), your pragmatic approach is very reasonable.

    As a business person with business in both KC and Chicago, I can testify to the lack of options in both directions. The KC airport is too remote and there’s next to no air service to KC anyway. Invariably, we drive to KC. Plenty of air service to CHI but the hassles make day trips very annoying. I’ve long said if I could take a train to CHI for not more than 3 hours I’d do it every time. No airports, arrival at Union Station in downtown Chicago versus either airport, and the ability to work each way. But today, it’s still a 6 hour trip to and from CHI by rail, although I know this will be changing soon.

    The ultimate problem is that we lack visionary leadership at both the Federal and state levels in IL and MO. Senator Durbin (the most liberal and most powerful pol from either state) has proven to only be a very reluctant supporter to my great disappointment. What makes the lack of political leadership especially hard to understand is the political popularity of expanded high-speed rail, especially in IL. It makes me nuts.