St. Louis was once one of the busiest passenger railroad hubs in the country. Union Station near downtown was one of the largest and busiest in the world. It opened in 1894 and ceased operating as an active train terminal in 1978. I remember taking one of the last passenger trains out of there when I was very little. It was a short trip taken to Desoto, Missouri with my grandparents. My grandfather bought me a pair of pinstriped pants and one of those Casey Jones hats that the engineers wore. I remember sneaking into the basement when we got back home and playing with my grandfather’s oilcan. Unfortunately it was full and that was the end of my pants and basement privileges. The St. Louis Union Station is now an entertainment complex with open-air music concerts, restaurants, a hotel, and a movie complex. I was sad to hear that the last real association with the railroad ended with the closing of the model railroad shop there.
But I ride the rails more than ever now. It’s just that the trains are smaller and not diesel powered anymore. For six years I endured the noise of construction right outside of my backroom window as they were building the new MetroLink extension. Of course I was working the night shift at the time and construction began promptly at 6 a.m. just when I was getting home and ready for bed. It took a few months, but I finally got used to the noise as they finished working on the tracks near my house and moved slowly down the line. The project was finally finished over time and over budget exceeding the initial estimate of $430 million for an 8-mile extension.
Riding the MetroLink around town took a little getting used to at first since I hadn’t taken public transportation since I was in high school. The transit authority held a kind of free ride open house on the first day but I missed it. A friend of mine who was from New York and used to riding the subway system said that riding the MetroLink was a piece of cake, and though I found the map system a little confusing, I never got on the wrong train as some did, but I did mis-validate my ticket once and was thrown off the train by security to re-validate it at the next stop.
Other than that incident, my experiences riding the train have been pleasant ones. Walking from the station to my destinations has provided some much needed exercise. And according to the American Public Transportation Association, public transportation saves some 1.4 billion gallons of gasoline a year-about $1,399 per average household. Total household expenses can be reduced by about $6,200 which is more than most families spend on food. And the savings to the environment are even greater. Public transportation generates 95% less carbon monoxide and 50% less carbon dioxide per passenger mile than private vehicles. And it also preserves valuable land and public open spaces that would normally be used for roads.
And maybe the most important reason to start taking public transportation in St. Louis is the looming shutdown of parts of the area’s busiest highway (Interstate 40) for several years for new construction. If people don’t respond by altering their routes and using public transportation, many of the area roads may become nightmarishly grid locked during rush hour.