Self has noticed that in the past 9 months, he's ridden Amtrak more than in the past 9 years or so.  As it turns out, today is National Train Day, which you might not have realized, understandably so given the many recent other goings-on in the world.  The key cities for Amtrak-mediated celebrations of National Train Day are focused in Chicago, LA, Philly, and Washington, DC (though interestingly not NYC - go figure).  There are Train Day events going on at the STL and Kirkwood Amtrak stations today (though 3CM, typical loser, is unable to attend either).

In one sense, it's a good thing that National Train Day is just 6 years old, because had there been such a day 20 years ago, here in STL, the locale would have been embarassing for hosting any sort of get-together.  Back then, the Amtrak station was so minimal that it had the nickname of the "Amshack".  I first took a train from the Amshack in the mid-1990's.  I only recently took the next train trip from the downtown station, but did so twice in about a month.  Things at the station have improved since then, fortunately.  More below the flip....

This 2003 Riverfront Times article by Mike Seely gives a good, if ever so slightly snarky, overview of the tale of the Amshack, which he summarized as:

".....a temporary facility with an intended shelf life of three years, erected when Amtrak pulled out of Union Station in 1978. It is, according to rail-association members and local officials, easily the most embarrassingly pathetic big-city railroad station in the country...."
Just as bluntly in the same article, local Tom Shrout described the Amshack thus:
"'It's a piece of cr-p.  You don't even have to compare it with big cities'. Kirkwood's got a better station; Washington (Missouri) has a better station; Irvine, California, has a better station.'"
I've never actually used the Kirkwood station, but just even looking at it from a distance, that evaluation was actually true.  However, in 2008 (1 year later than planned, but whatever), downtown STL got a new train station to replace the old Amshack.  Certainly nowhere near like the opulence of the old (and barely functional otherwise, that I can tell) Union Station, but the Gateway Transportation Center is definitely an improvement.  Aimee Levitt of the RFT had this 2008 blog post on the then-new facility, where you can see pictures of the GTC.  It's very conveniently connected to the MetroLink station at the Civic Center, and as noted, for those who ride Greyhound, the Greyhound stop is in the same facility.  Granted, the GTC is pretty spartan, but at least it looks reasonably respectable.

Unlike Levitt's offhand comment at the end of the article about the on-time performance of the Chicago-St. Louis line, I guess I must have caught some decent karma, for once, since both times I've taken Amtrak recently on the STL-Chicago route and vice versa, all the trains were on time.  Part of this route is actually single-track, so that it's obviously necessary at some points to wait for a given track to clear going in the opposite direction before the train that one is on can proceed.  I've heard stories from others about delays on the route that are exacerbated when the train leaves STL late, for example.  But again, for whatever pure luck reason, I didn't have to endure that in my recent journeys.

As well, on the most recent trip, it was heartening to see that the train was full in both directions.  In this instance, it was probably due to the fact that ComicCon Chicago was the same weekend, so obviously loads of convention-goers were returning from the proceedings.  But even going up to Chicago that Saturday, when any ComicCon attendees were already up there, the train was pretty much booked solid.  My traveling companions & I booked fairly early, so we got pretty good prices, certainly much cheaper than Southwest, though not as cheap as MegaBus (which, to be honest, I've never ridden from STL), to be sure.  But there's a lot more room to stretch out and relax on the train compared to a plane or a bus.  I was also prepared with books to read.

So on a microenvironment level, just from the few trips that I've taken on the STL-Chicago route, things look good for Amtrak at least there.  The big picture, of course, is not nearly so rosy, as a cursory perusal of articles just from the NYT, for instance, can indicate.  Ron Dixon has been the main reporter there, with a sampling of his articles as follows:

(a) 5/30/12, problems with WiFi (note that there was only 1 comment)
(b) 8/3/12, problems with restaurant car finances and business performance
(c) 8/15/12, increased NE Corridor Amtrak business last summer due to problems at the airlines, but with qualifiers (Dixon seems rather good at that)

Amtrak still has more than its share of troubles, not helped by the cabal of jerks known as the Republican Party, which wants to destroy Amtrak and anything reeking of the common good, of course, but as noted, Amtrak isn't a model of 100% performance perfection.  

It admittedly took the most recent plans for the trip with my traveling companions to really get me thinking more about using Amtrak, to the point that I signed up for their frequent traveler program.  I honestly doubt that I'll use it as much as when I fly Southwest, which I've been used to doing for weekend trips to Chicago and such.  But for Chicago trips now, I like to think that I'll have it more on my transporation radar.  Of course, sooner or later, late performance on one of my excursions will have to occur, just by the laws of statistics.  But if you're into trains, then today is your day.

So with that, time for the usual SNLC protocol, namely your loser stories of the week, which may or may not involve trains, as is your wont.....

Originally posted to chingchongchinaman on Sat May 11, 2013 at 04:27 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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