Saturday, June 8, 2019

What's the hurry to get to St. Louis?

Typical St. Louis residents commuting to work in 2019

     Today is "But St. Louis IS Boring Day" at one of my favorite neighborhood watering holes, Wrigleyville's Nisei Lounge. At least it was, back in the day. I haven't been there in many years, but still recall the simple pleasure of passing a Friday afternoon in its dim, modest interior with a cue in my hand, sucking back beer and trading observations of the world as pool balls clacked and the juke box played.
     After the below was published a St. Louis radio station phoned me, on air, and invited me to visit the city and see its wonders. Trying to avoid the trip, for reasons clear below, I said that I couldn't imagine going without my family. So they flew us ALL down, put us up in the presidential suite of the Adams Mark Hotel. We got the full treatment—to a Rams game and that Buster Brown kids museum. As we were ferried across the St. Louis Zoo in a golf cart for our VIP tour, my wife leaned into me, eyes glittering wickedly, and whispered, "Piss off Montreal next...."

     Amtrak wants to send 16 trains a day hurtling at up to 125 miles an hour from Chicago to St. Louis. Which begs the question: Are there 16 trainloads of Chicagoans who want to go to St. Louis every day?
     I doubt it.
     Don't get me wrong. If you somehow find yourself in St. Louis, as I have on six or a dozen occasions, there are things to do. Ted Drewes Frozen Custard. That train station mall. The Arch. The Budweiser Brewery Tour.
     I've done the beer tour a few times. Which underscores a vital truth about St. Louis: If London takes a lifetime to master, then St. Louis takes about three days, and after that you find yourself back at Budweiser again. It gets old.
     All told, that doesn't bode well for the idea of high-speed bullet trains flashing between the two cities. I mean, think about St. Louis. What adjectives come to mind? "Sleepy" is one. "Warm" is another. "Muggy," a third.
     St. Louis, by definition, is not a place one rushes to. Whether you get there in an hour or three hours or five hours or a day is pretty immaterial. The very fact that you are going to St. Louis at all shows you have time on your hands. Frankly, I think people would be more inclined to increase the time it takes to get there, not decrease it. They would rather take a flatboat down to St. Louis, twanging on a mouth harp while Huck poles the raft along the meandering Mississippi, than take a high-speed train. I would.  
A shot, beer and this lovely, spot-on t-shirt all for $12.
     High-speed trains work in the East because they connect New York City to places like Boston and Washington, D.C. Each city is filled with people who need to travel in a hurry.
     Running a high-speed line down to St. Louis would be like filling an inflatable kiddie pool with a fire hose—you can do it, but there's a tremendous sense of overkill.
      Frankly, the whole scheme smacks of those suburban mayors who, from time to time, announce that the solution for suburban commuting problems is the creation of a $ 5 billion Disneylandlike monorail system between, say, Oak Lawn and Carpentersville.
     Look at foreign cities connected by high-speed trains. Tokyo and Osaka. Paris and the French Riviera. There is no need to imagine why people in Cannes would want to zip up to Paris, just as there is no mystery as to why Parisians might want to speed down to Monte Carlo.
     But St. Louis? Sure, I can see people there wanting to come here, their Model-A Fords piled high with chicken coops and butter churns and sofas as they snake their dusty way up Interstate 55 to look for a piece of land where they can be farmers.
      That's a one-way trip, unless they give up, overwhelmed at the tall buildings and the fact that their cheerful "Howdy!" is met with puzzled stares. They can lope home to Grandma's kitchen on Greyhound. No need for a high-speed train for that.
     Beyond Missourians who can't cut it here, who else might use that train? A few Wash U alumni heading for nostalgic weekends. Half a bleacher's worth of Cubs fans on game days. Put them together and how many Chicagoans go to St. Louis on an average day? Five? Twenty? A hundred? Tops.
     The entire question is probably moot anyway, since the line would be run by Amtrak, and they have a hard time getting their regular old pokey trains from point A to point B. I can't imagine Amtrak trains reaching 125 miles an hour, unless they're derailing over a gorge.
     Back in the days when Eva Marie Saint ran into Cary Grant on a train in "North by Northwest," there was a purpose and a romance to cross-country trains. Now, sadly, they exist mostly for penny-pinching retirees and acrophobics. The towns along the route where Amtrak says it will be blasting its high speed Chicago-to-St. Louis Cannonball Express are concerned about the increased traffic. They needn't be.

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 27, 2000



  1. St. Louis is probably a nice enough place to live, but who in the hell would want to visit!


  2. Half a bleacher's worth of Cubs fans on game days? More like half the ballpark. The Cardinals always attract a lot of their fans to Wrigley. Used to be the biggest weekends of the season, and the most expensive. Probably still are.

    And plenty of Chicago bleacher fans followed the Cubs to St. Louis. I had the opportunity many times, but always passed....too rowdy and too much boozing. I have seen the Cubs play elsewhere, though...Detroit, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cleveland--and there's a lot of Cubbie Blue in all those cities. Cub fans love to travel, and they do...all over the country.

    A high-speed train sounds great, but I have to wonder if it would sell a lot of tickets all year long. I doubt it...and a few game dates during baseball season would not do the tick. Rails and ties cost a bundle.

  3. You need A/C in St. Louis starting in April, sometimes in March. The city is a hellhole of humidity & bugs. It's lost about half of it's population in the last 50 years, as people realized there are far more comfortable climates around the country.
    My guess is, that the 16 trains a day are actually for St. Louisans to get away from there, to Chicago.

  4. It appears from this that the funds expended in buttering up the Steinberg family was a poor investment.

    Agree about the climate.


  5. I spent a month on a union assignment there in the early aughts, seemed like a year.

  6. I have this theory that Chicago is such a friendly big city because we are constantly renewed by fresh faced midwestern kids recently graduated from regional universities. Some of them might even be from St. Louis.


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