The Case for Commuter Rail

“Kirkwood is a train town” is a phrase often uttered. It is said in the same way that some places are called hockey towns or factory towns. And yet I would imagine that those things are much more regularly thought about, more central to life there, than trains have been to Kirkwood in a very long time. Trains have somehow, been relegated to a footnote, a safety concern, a novelty. Last week I stated in passing that Downtown Kirkwood had a transit score of just 26. Perhaps the symbol of our town needs to be considered a larger part of the solution.

Tracks

Two set of tracks run through Kirkwood, one owned by Union Pacific and the other by BNSF. While both lines are primarily used for freight traffic, the UP line also carries amtrak trains and are the tracks on which the Kirkwood Station is situated making figure much more prominently in the public imagination.

A map of the trains of the St. Louis area. The two tracks that run through Kirkwood run largely parallel to one another to St. Louis

The Station

Kirkwood is the third busiest Amtrak station in the state after St. Louis and Kansas City. Built in 1893 and designed by architect Douglas Donovan it is considered an excellent example of the Richardson Romanesque architectural style. In 2003 Amtrak announced it was planning on closing the station but at the hands of a heroic effort by City Administrator Michael Brown the city instead bought the building, staffed it with volunteers and kept the doors open and the trains running. The station has always been integral to who we are (we put it in the middle of our flag for a reason), its history is extensive (President Truman visited in 1948), and yet, we’ve hardly touched the place since the last full renovation in 1941, a date closer to when the station was built than it is to today.

A rendering of Kirkwood Train Station as seen from South of the tracks. The upgrades alluded to in the caption are seen.
The extended covered platform at right and new ancillary storage building at left are the two most striking exterior changes included in the renovation.

Station Restoration

The total cost of the accumulated maintenance and improvements sits at $7.2 million with $700,000 coming from the City or Kirkwood and $3 million from the Federal Railroad Administration. That leaves $3.8 million to be raised via capital campaign by the Historic Kirkwood Train Station Foundation (of which former mayor Art McDonnell is President). They have, according to their website so far raised $600,000 since they began last November. Renovations include the following: expanded and ADA compliant restrooms, a new roof, a new geothermal (!!!) HVAC system, a new digital train schedule sign, and general interior restoration. The most visually striking of the additions (besides the shiny copper roof) will be the extension of the platform covering (restoring a feature of the original station that was removed in 1985 when the roof was last replaced) and the construction of an auxiliary storage building (to be used used for both equipment and luggage storage) that will hopefully occupy some of the underutilized surface parking lot that sits to the West of the station. In what is kind of an incredible footnote the stone to be used for the ancillary building and any repairs to the walls of the station itself will be quarried from Kirkwood’s Dee Koestering Park where the original stone also came from.

An Alternate Fundraising Approach

While attempting to raise these funds privately might have sounded like a good idea, and the organizers of the effort explained the reasoning of it here, I’m not sure that they are. The train station is a public good and a valuable one. This is obviously a bad take right now in the midst of a global pandemic that has decimated tax revenue for local governments but I stand by it: a bond issue or a new tax would be more effective. It would: 1) ensure that the necessary funds actually get raised, (something that seems to be in doubt based on the current pace of fundraising). And 2) would fund continued maintenance so that we don’t find ourselves in this same position of having our civic icon having fallen into in 3.8 million dollars worth of disrepair.

Of course raising public money would likely require a ballot initiative but you have to imagine this sort of cause is basically akin to raising taxes for the zoo and the result would essentially never be in doubt. While it would be ideal to raise the funds from a hotel tax (hotels and their guests would theoretically benefit from an improved train station and residents love taxes that are charged to non residents rather than them), I’m not sure if Kirkwood is home to enough hotels to generate the funds required in a timely manner. Property taxes would be my second choice (significantly less popular but also more progressive than sales taxes and theoretically more consistent).

Routes

While more destinations are available if you make the short trek to the St. Louis station, Kirkwood (KWD) is currently serviced by just one Amtrak route: the Missouri River Runner. While it’s annoying that you can’t get to Chicago from Kirkwood without switching trains (Kirkwood to Chi would cost you $40.50 vs the just $25 it costs to get from downtown St. Louis to Chicago), this single route status is not too too bad.

Missouri River Runner

In addition to Kirkwood the River Runner has stops in Washington, Hermann, Jefferson City, Sedalia, Warrensburg, Lee’s Summit, Independence and Kansas City to the West and St. Louis to the East. Kansas City and Hermann have their obvious touristic appeal and Jefferson City is central to some lines of work, but perhaps a less obvious reason to take the train is for the return trip after a ride on the Katy Trail which runs through most of the same towns. (Yes, you’re allowed to bring your bike on board!)

A map of the Katy Trail, many of its cities also have stops for the Missouri River Runner

Suggested Tweaks

On the whole it seems like Amtrak is under lobbied by the City of Kirkwood based on how much we stand to gain. Some simple tweaks could go a very long way:

  1. A clearer connection between Kirkwood and Columbia would be massive for Amtrak’s usage by Mizzou students. Even a shuttle between Jeff City and CoMo might do the trick but the current 34 minute drive from Mizzou to the closest train station is prohibitive, especially if you don’t have a car at school in the first place.
  2. Extending the Chicago-bound route by one stop from its current terminus in St. Louis to Kirkwood would surely be massively popular, (especially if it was routed through Illinois’ various college towns). Obviously the line has to end somewhere and St. Louis is as as obvious as any place but come on this would be ridiculously popular.
  3. Diversifying arrival and departure times at Kirkwood Station. Currently the train from Kansas City arrives at 1:13pm and the train to Kansas City leaves 4:29pm. This schedule makes any sort of weekend trip to Kirkwood difficult as it means either you have to skip work on Friday or you spend half of the weekend itself on the train. I’m also not sure how you fix it besides varying schedules by weekday/weekend but it might be worth it to try.

An Economic Hub

It is easy to imagine a central economy arising out of a more active train station: bike rentals, boutique hotels, and even historic tours. The more these sort of services are offered, the more attractive day and weekend trips by train become. Tourism, like all other industries, is one that feeds back in on itself and continues to become more viable as economies of scale grow. In addition to these tourism-specific businesses, existing businesses serving existing residents would also stand to benefit. Everything from Sammy’s Soaps to Billy G’s to the Custard Station would likely be bolstered tremendously from people coming off the train and perusing the streets on a Saturday afternoon.

Commuter Rail

Commuter trains are trains somewhere between Amtrak and MetroLink. They run on regular tracks and use full sized trains but instead of going from one city to another they typically transport people from suburbs and satellite towns into the city for work in the morning and then bring them back home in the evening. While there currently is service between Kirkwood and St. Louis as part of the afore MO River Runner line it cannot be classified as Commuter Rail as neither the times (1:13pm departure from Kirkwood to St. Louis and 4:00pm departure from St. Louis back to Kirkwood) nor the price ($9.50 each way) make it a viable option. Commuter trains ran from Kirkwood to St. Louis until they were discontinued in 1961. I propose we do some serious thinking about and devote some serious funds to bringing that commuter rail service back.

How It Would Work & Why

There are two perspectives from which commuter rail would need to work, that of its administrators and that of its patrons. From the perspective of the administration both practical and funding would have to be considered.

Kirkwood would obviously have to appropriate some funds to getting this thing started. Those funds would obviously also not be enough. Regional, state and federal partnerships would be required and grants would have to be applied for. I do, however think a fairly compelling case could be made for those partnerships and grants. Perhaps the mo

At a practical level adding more trains to the same amount of tracks would also present some hurdles and schedules would have to be better coordinated between the three would be users of the tracks (freight, Amtrak and commuter). Of additional consideration would be the train itself. Trains would have to be purchased and a system designed. For example while some trains in the United States (including the LIRR) still have to be turned around on a train table before they return the way they came, others do not. due to space constraints Kirkwood would require the latter. (FWIW: A train table used to be located on the grounds of the current farmer’s market).

From the patrons’ perspective effective commuter rail would require 4 qualities, let’s call them CATE:

  1. Connective
  2. Affordable
  3. Timely
  4. Enjoyable

1. Connective:

Commuter rail works when it doesn’t require cars at any step of the commute. If you’re going to hop in a car to drive to the train station, you might as well just drive all the way to your job. Downtown Kirkwood might be home to enough people to make this thing work as is, especially as its population potentially grows with new projects on the horizon but being better connected to other transit could only help overcome the last mile problem. The easiest connectivity upgrade would be a more robust bike lane network servicing the station, especially given the aforementioned connections to the Katy Trail. In terms of public transit the 49 bus route, running north and south in a straight line along Lindbergh, stops at the station and seems to decently expand the footprint of the population the station can service. Ideally, the commuter rail route would also feature a stop in Downtown Webster to pick up more city-bound commuters but without a currently operating station this is probably a pipe dream in the short term.

A small red brick and stonebuilding sits next to the train tracks
Downtown Webster’s former train station, currently used as a Montessori School

2. Affordable

Tickets would be roundtrip and cost around $6 (the Long Island Railroad, probably the most well known commuter rail in the country, costs $5.50 roundtrip). The price of the ticket itself is not the biggest factor in commuter rail being an economically superior option though. Instead it is the savings derived from the reduced need to own a car. If families no longer need a car to get to work (or at least require fewer cars per family) tremendous savings can be derived from the gas, car insurance and car payments that are no longer required. The higher order effect would be that Kirkwood simultaneously becomes both a more desirable place to live and one with a lower cost of living.

3. Timely

Commuter rail would have to be timely both in its departure times and how long the trip itself takes. Departures to downtown St. Louis would likely need to leave at 6 or 7 in the morning and return trips to Kirkwood in the evening would likely have to be at 4 and 5 pm. The more departure times that are offered the more commuter rail becomes a viable option for the critical mass of people it would take to make it work. Having more trips also makes its operating expenses grow. Finding the balance between these two considerations would be essential.

Also of consideration is how long the train trip itself would take. While businessmen and professors would likely accept a 15 minute longer commute if it meant they could be productive during it, they are not as likely to be cool with a commute that is twice as long as what they could achieve in a car. The one thing that trains have going for them is consistency: removing unexpected traffic delays caused by accidents or construction likely removes a considerable amount of stress from life.

4. Enjoyable

Commuter rail must also be a better experience than driving. Waiting for the train at the station must be comfortable with plenty of indoor seating, wifi and the station’s TVs set to CNN and ESPN. Once you get on the train the experience must be spacious, have readily available power outlets and offer wifi. Instead of the commute being the worst part of your day, or an unproductive one, it could be useful and enjoyable.

El Fin.

Well, this is the end of the line. We can’t do a whole lot right now, but we can plot new ideas and refine old ones so that when it’s go time and things open back up and people are set to build things again, we’re have plenty of ideas for what those things might be. I hope something on this website contributes to that effort and those ideas. As always, thanks for reading and stay safe, Swarm!