The majority of the Bus Blog so far has centered on traveling around Little Rock, whether it’s just walking around downtown or travelling outside the city core into the surrounding neighborhoods. But another important component of a successful public transit system is the ability of people to travel to and from cities. Although today Amtrak is controlled mostly by the federal government, traditionally passenger service was privately owned, many by privately owned freight railroad companies that are still around today. But as the automobile became more and more influential in American culture and as our cities began to spread out into the surrounding suburbs, passenger trains became unprofitable and it the late 60’s the government stepped in to prevent the complete disappearance of passenger service in America.
Today, privately owned passenger rail has been replaced by the airplane for long distance travel though they work in similar ways. We still have the busy terminals that connect America’s cities to one another, only today the mode of transportation has moved from the rail to the sky. Ironically, the other major comparison is the decline of the airlines from its glory days decades ago to their current struggle to keep financially afloat. And though the airlines aren’t going anywhere for a while, the demand for a stronger rail presence in America is still growing.
Wikipedia may not be best source for some things, but I did find some interesting numbers comparing rail travel to other forms of transportation. And what I was most surprised about was that Amtrak is apparently on time more times than the airlines and makes twice as much per passenger in revenue as the airlines! I’m going to have to do some more research into this but its food for thought.
So as part of my experiment, I decided I wanted to ride Amtrak from Little Rock to either Dallas or St. Louis and see what it was like traveling outside of Little Rock without a car and to observe some transit systems in another city. I ended up choosing St. Louis (mostly because it was cheaper) and so earlier this month, I emailed some of my friends to see if anyone wanted to accompany me. Troeger, Lucas and John all replied and we all bought our tickets last week before our trip. So Friday night, we all agreed to meet up at Union Station. While Lucas and Troeger drove to the station, John parked his car at my house and he and I walked from my place to the station. A round trip ticket to St. Louis and back is a hundred bucks even. Compare that to a flight from Southwest which, if you were to book a flight in February, it would be $65 to travel to St. Louis and $59 to return. But if you wanted to fly this upcoming weekend it would be $164 to St. Louis and $136 to return. And you would have to change planes in Dallas! Our trip took a little over 7 hours. A direct flight to St. Luis from Little Rock is only a hour but a lot of times you have to change planes in Dallas and the trip can be anywhere from 3 to 5 hours. Add to that enough time to go through security, go through the baggage claims, find a cab to go downtown etc… and Amtrak begins to see more and more reasonable for short trips like this one.
We all arrived around 11:30 and boarded the train and it pulled away from the station at 11:39 on the dot, right on time. I love riding Amtrak. The passenger cars are double decked and passengers ride in the upper section. The seats are spacious. You can get a first class ticket or even a sleeper car but most people just get the typical coach ticket. It wasn’t like an airline where the seats are crammed in as tightly as possible. There’s lot of room between the rows, the seats are wide and comfy and there are even leg and feet rests. Even so, some people have trouble sleeping on a train. Luckily for me I can sleep almost anywhere. Shortly before we pulled into St. Louis, the conductor walked through the cabs, waking everyone getting off in St. Louis to let us know that we were nearly there. The train stopped and we got off into the night. St. Louis has a great new rail station. Though it’s nowhere near as large or impressive as the original Union Station that once served St. Louis, The Gateway Multimodal Transportation Center is a beautifully designed structure, serving two Amtrak routes as well as the city’s Greyhound service. And directly adjacent to the station is St’ Louis Light Rail system, Metro Link. We went to the ticketing machine and all bought a day pass and boarded the next train to head downtown.
So what’s the first thing you do in St. Louis? See the Arch of course! But it was still early and the Arch was not open yet so we wandered around downtown looking for some breakfast. We passed by the old St’ Louis Courthouse and saw some interesting things. We were first surprised to see a horse sticking its nose out of a Budweiser truck parked on the street. Eight of the Budweiser Clydesdales were waiting in 2 semi truck trailers, waiting to do a photos shoot downtown. We also saw a group of the local Occupy Wall Street organization camped out in the park. And on top of that, America’s Got Talent was filming a large group of cheerleaders, musicians, dancer’s and a wide variety of other sorts of talented (some more than others) individuals who were all screaming and waving at the cameras. It was a pretty surreal scene.
We ate some breakfast downtown and headed towards the Arch. There was already a line to get in and we didn’t know it, but it was the 46th anniversary of the completion of the St. Louis Arch. They were serving cake inside, but the neatest thing was that a large group of the original workers who built the Arch in the 60’s were gathered to sign posters and talk with visitors.
We waited in the visitor center until it was time for us to go up. The Arch has its own tram system that was invented specifically for the Arch. A train of 8 tiny cars start at the bottom and travel up the Arch legs on either side, because the tram has to go up at an angle, the cab begins to tilt as it moves up the Arch, but every few seconds it rolls back vertically as it continues upward. It’s been years since I’ve been up in the Arch but it was still as amazing as it was the first time. Luckily the wind wasn’t blowing like it was the last time I was up there so we couldn’t feel it sway. The views of downtown and the river are great from up here!
After the Arch, we wanted to see if we could find a place to watch the first half of the Razorback game. We wandered over to Laclede’s Landing, an old neighborhood just North of the Arch, that is a restored district of one of the oldest remaining areas of the original city. We were unable to find anywhere that had the game, so we gave up and decided we wanted to go check out Busch Stadium, home of the Cardinals! We were hoping the Cards would be in town for the World Series while we were there, but they were playing in Texas that day. But the tour was still pretty cool.
The old Busch stadium was built in the 60’s around the same time as the Arch, and was a very iconic structure with its series of arches that surrounded the stadium. The new stadium partially overlaps the old one’s footprint and though it actually has less seating then the old one, the views from the seats are amazing! Similar to Dickey Stephens stadium in North Little Rock that offers a great view of Little Rock’s skyline.
After the tour we walked a few blocks to a sports bar where we had lunch and watched some highlights of the Razorback game. The afternoon was wearing on but we still had a lot of time so we decided to get back on the Metroline and head out to Forrest Park and Washington University. Like I mentioned earlier, a big part of this trip was about seeing how other cities transit systems worked. I really didn’t know much about St, Louis light rail and I was surprised at how extensive it was and also how clean it was and the amount of security at the stations. It was a very nice system! We walked down to Stadium Metrolink Station and waited for the next train.
I’ll have part two of our trip posted shortly!