Transit Action Network (TAN)

Advocates for Improved and Expanded Transit in the Kansas City Region.

Getting Commuter Rail Downtown Faces Major Hurdles

Posted by Transit Action Network on April 30, 2013


Kansas City Southern train in “trench” east of Union Station, probably taken in the 1950’s from Forrest Ave. Bridge. Note the six tracks in the trench. The next bridge east is Tracy Ave. Note the ramp which rises from the bottom of the trench on the right and comes up toward the viewer under Tracy Ave. and another one going back toward the east. These carried tracks from the trench level up to businesses on the right. In fact you may be able to make out a freight car next to the brick building on the far right.

jc_ccaa_logo_vertLast month Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders announced that there would be no transit election this year. The decision was due to a newly emerged disagreement with Kansas City Southern Railroad concerning the location of the downtown terminus of the I-70 corridor commuter rail line. Based on earlier discussions with the railroads, the County was planning for a Downtown terminus near Third and Grand in River Market. Now, it appears, Kansas City Southern is insisting the line terminate at Union Station.

Since Mr. Sander’s announcement, the Transit Action Network has noticed, in remarks by individuals as well as press accounts, a lack of understanding of the factors affecting the County’s decision. We decided to publish this note in order to provide those interested with more information about the choice of a downtown station site.

The costs and benefits of the two options can be viewed along three dimensions: estimated ridership, commercial development potential, and cost. The chart below summarizes the two options for downtown locations in these terms.

Comparison of Third and Grand and Union Station

 Sites for Commuter Rail Terminus

Third and Grand

Union Station

Estimated Daily Ridership[1] 

I – 70 Corridor

Current Study (Est. for 2035)

1,150 to 2,800


2007 Study (Est. for 2030)

815 to 1,190

1,060 to 1,548

2002 Study (Est. for 2020)


3,346 to 4,160

Estimated Cost of Construction[2] of a “Common Line”



Commercial Potential[3]

No value yet estimated No value yet estimated

The Mid-America Regional Council (MARC) has completed four commuter rail studies over the past couple decades. The first of these studies examined the possibility of commuter rail in the I-35 corridor to the Southwest, in Johnson County. Union Station was to be the downtown terminus of this route. There has never been a problem getting to the station from the West. Although this corridor has always shown the greatest ridership potential, the I-35 project died because it basically required laying an additional track from Union Station to Olathe. Johnson County voters were not expected to support the high cost of such a project.

View from Forest Ave. today. Note overgrown bridge abutments where the Tracy Ave. bridge used to be. We assume railroad right-of-way extends approximately from the wall of the building on the left to at least the bridge abutment on the right and possibly to the building out of the picture on the right. This picture provides a better view of the old ramp system bringing tracks up to street level.

View from Forest Ave. today. Note overgrown bridge abutments where the Tracy Ave. bridge used to be. We assume railroad right-of-way extends approximately from the wall of the building on the left to at least the bridge abutment on the right and possibly to the building out of the picture on the right. This picture provides a better view of the old ramp system bringing tracks up to street level.

The next MARC study in 2002 examined the possibility of commuter rail along various routes in both Kansas and Missouri. Of the routes studied the I-70 corridor was the most attractive in terms of potential ridership with a maximum of 4,160 passengers per day in 2020. This study assumed that the downtown terminus would be Union Station. There was no evaluation of the feasibility getting to Union Station compared with other locations.

Grand Avenue bridge. An example of one of the bridges that would have to be modified in order to  accommodate a fourth track.

Grand Avenue bridge. An example of one of the bridges that would have to be modified in order to accommodate a fourth track.

The next study, in 2007, focused just on the I-70 corridor, was far more detailed than the 2002 study, and examined both express bus and commuter rail. It used two different forecasting models with varying assumptions imposed on each. Using these models daily ridership estimates ranged from 815 at the low end for a station in River Market to 1,548 as a maximum for service into Union Station. It was in this study that the problem of getting to Union Station first surfaced. As the chart above indicates, it is extremely costly to get to the station from the east. (We will discuss the reasons for this subsequently.) So it was decided that a commuter rail route would preferably terminate in the River Market area. The problem with this was that the ridership forecasting models indicated, overall, about a 30% drop in ridership compared with Union Station. There were two reasons for this: First, commuters would have to transfer to buses to get to their ultimate destinations. (The downtown streetcar was not foreseen at the time.) Research suggests transfers between rail and bus cause a substantial drop in system use. Secondly, the combined travel time of commuter rail plus bus would be significantly longer than the drive time from a commuter’s home directly to their downtown office. Because of this and the large costs entailed in any rail system, commuter rail found no proponents and the idea withered.

That brings us to County Executive Mike Sanders’ vision for expanding transit throughout Jackson County. The County Executive’s plan incorporates commuter rail, express bus, a greatly enhanced county-wide local bus system, and a system of bike and pedestrian trails.

With the County Executive’s backing, MARC began the current study of the I-70 and Rock Island corridors in 2010. An additional study of the Highway 71 corridor was added later and is still underway. A series of ever more detailed study phases produced the most detailed information so far for both the I-70 corridor and the “Rock Island Corridor” to Lee’s Summit (and eventually, to Pleasant Hill). These two routes would come together in the southeast corner of the East Bottoms in the Blue River flood plain near an area called “Rock Creek Junction”. They would then proceed into the city on a “common line”, either to Third and Grand in the River Market or to Union Station (or vicinity).

Looking East from Vine toward  Woodland Ave. bridge

Woodland Avenue bridge (taken from the Vine Street bridge.) The “trench” narrows from here to its start at the 18th Street bridge. A fourth track at the same level as existing tracks would require excavation along one side of the trench.

Getting to River Market requires acquisition of right-of-way from the City of Kansas City along the North side of Kessler Park, construction of a bridge over the Blue River and adjacent north-south mainline tracks, and construction of track between Rock Creek Junction and a station at Third and Grand. The cost is estimated, according to the draft “Locally Preferred Alternative” report prepared by MARC, at $113.3 million, including a station at Third and Grand costing $4 million.

The Union Station route looks deceptively simple. The tracks to Union Station are already there at Rock Creek Junction. So, just run commuter trains on them. Problem solved, cost $0. But this idea is unlikely to work. The tracks through this corridor are part of several key nationally significant rail corridors. The problem is the corridor is already almost at capacity with well over 100 trains a day. Meanwhile, national rail freight traffic is expected to double over the next 20 years[4]. The railroads will not allow their infrastructure to be used in a manner that interferes with their primary business of moving freight. So adding commuter trains, which demand close adherence to fixed schedules, in an already crowded corridor, is not viewed favorably by the railroads.

Another option then is to build an additional track from Rock Creek Junction to Union Station. This turns out to be extremely expensive. According to a consultant working with the MARC team, who has looked closely at this alternative in the past, the cost would be around $1 billion – almost ten times the cost of going to Third and Grand! Here’s the problem. For approximately two miles east of Union Station the tracks lie in a “trench” (Grand Ave. to 18th Street, just east of the “Benton curve” on I-70). When Union Station was built, the trench contained four “thru” tracks. There were additionally two tracks on either side of the thru tracks which led to other tracks running up and down the sides of the trench serving rail shippers lining the right-of-way above track level.  [See black and white photograph of arriving Kansas City Southern train taken from (we think) the Forest Ave. bridge in, probably, the 1950’s.] Today there are just three tracks in the trench. This is for two reasons: Revised safety standards have increased the distance between tracks thought to be safe, and changes in maintenance practices since 1914 require the use of rubber-tired, road-based equipment. So the trench now needs to accommodate a service road. Therefore, in order to add an additional track two things are required: 1. One of the sides of the trench would need to be excavated for at least part of the two-mile length, and 2. Most of the 15 bridges that cross the trench would have to be modified or rebuilt. [See photographs from Google Maps below to get an understanding of the topography and bridge constraints.] It is not difficult to intuitively understand the $1 billion figure.

So is the commuter rail project dead? Very large infrastructure projects require the alignment of numerous parties’ interests and this inevitably creates hurdles along the way to an agreement. Currently, the railroads have agreed to contract for a third party capacity study of existing rail infrastructure. This might reveal that, contrary to the railroad’s beliefs, there is capacity for commuter trains on some basis. Or, perhaps a way will be found to add a fourth track in the trench more cost-effectively. Perhaps clearing the next hurdle may require just another healthy dose of creativity and/or negotiating acumen. Sometimes an idea just won’t work out and the effort has to be abandoned, at least temporarily, until conditions are more favorable.

Given the time, money, and public commitment spent doing transit studies for Jackson County over the past few years, TAN hopes that some tangible transit improvements will result near term, even if commuter rail can not be immediately realized.

See the KC Smart Moves website for updates on the current Jackson County Commuter Corridors Alternatives Analysis


[1] These ridership estimates are far from comparable. They represent estimates from four different forecasting models performed over a ten year period, incorporating different relationships between variables, different parameters and different assumptions. Ridership forecasting models are notoriously inaccurate in any case. Today forecasting models tend to err on the side of conservatism so most, but not all, of the newer commuter rail systems have exceeded ridership forecasts; often times by considerable margins.

[2] The cost estimate for getting to Union Station was provided by one of the consultants involved in the current study. It was not prepared for the current MARC sponsored study. It’s date is unknown. Neither estimate includes cost of station, or station upgrades. Sources: MARC “Locally Preferred Alternative” draft and a consultant to the project team.

[3] Because the Union Station alternative was dismissed early in the latest series of studies, there has not been a formal, quantitative analysis of the development potential for each of the two alternative station locations. There is vacant and underutilized property around each, but an analysis of the potential total value of viable projects has not been developed

[4]  MARC, “Regional Transit Implementation Plan – Commuter Corridors “, p.  2-7, 2010


2 Responses to “Getting Commuter Rail Downtown Faces Major Hurdles”

  1. John Wegner said

    There are numerous examples of places where the track spacing has not changed from the 1950s (and even before). Places that are even less accessible than the “trench” — the Amtrak tunnel under the Hudson River being one.

  2. […] “Kansas City, Missouri’s Union Station is the logical and historical place for any future transit hub in the metropolitan region. As the nation 2nd busiest rail traffic hub, this both creates a huge potential for rail development and a huge roadblock to its development. While much of the nation’s rail freight passes through downtown Kansas City and the region, it is this same bottleneck that may prove to be prohibitive for future passenger rail in the form of High Speed Rail and commuter rail. The following link is some additional information about this complex issue from our friends at the Transit Action Network:“ […]

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