Champions of the restoration of the Gulf Coast Passenger Rail service say progress is slow on the project, but it's still moving - and Amtrak could have service reestablished along the Gulf Coast in less time than originally projected.
"We are very hopeful the Gulf Coast Passenger Rail will be up and running in 18-24 months," said Southern Rail Commission (SRC) Chairman Greg White in February. "We first said the goal was 3-5 years, but even though the progress is slow, the end result could be here sooner than we thought."
Freight and Amtrak services along the route were suspended in 2005 following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Freight service was restored after an extraordinary five-month rebuild of the line and bridges from New Orleans, Louisiana to Mobile, Alabama opening up an economic lifeline for Gulf Coast recovery.
White states the most time-consuming issue has been establishing what new infrastructure may be needed along the route - and coming to an agreement with track host CSX as to the cost of those improvements.
"New tracks would most likely not be needed, but existing lines may require certain safety upgrades," he said.
White also stated that interest in bringing back passenger rail is growing because there is an opportunity to grow local economies with it.
“Passenger rail is a key part of overall transportation infrastructure,” said White. “It’s about the integration of freight rail, highways and air traffic. All of these things make for good, complete, serviceable transportation systems that are a vital component to economic development of communities.”
Amtrak CEO Wick Moorman recently reiterated the company's commitment to seeing rail service restored along the Gulf Coast in a letter presented at the first 2017 quarterly SRC meeting.
White states the letter "may be Amtrak's strongest showing of support in print for states' efforts for passenger rail service." The letter includes references to the Gulf Coast service in addition to longer-term SRC goals for new routes from Baton Rouge to New Orleans and across Central Mississippi and Northern Louisiana through Eastern Texas.
Moorman's letter read in part:
"We are committed to operating both the long distance and corridor services on the Gulf Coast route as soon as the necessary funding can be arranged, and the necessary agreements are in place to implement the service...Amtrak strongly supports these projects and will continue to do everything we can to work with you to bring these services to completion. I am committed along with the rest of the Amtrak team to working with the Commission and the Gulf Coast states to obtain the necessary commitments from the host railroads to determine the capital and operating needs of each service, in order to advance all of these important projects."
SRC member Jerry Gehman says there are still a couple of obstacles that could derail the plan or send it to a sidetrack.
“The pressure is now on the railroads, and we have to get funding from the state legislatures,” he said. “Those are not easy things, but that’s where we are.”
“We have some political hills to climb,” he added. “What the Trump Administration does for rail infrastructure will be important. Of course, in his Inaugural Address, (President Trump) listed five railroad projects as part of his trillion-dollar infrastructure program. The return of rail service to the Gulf Coast was included in the five.”
The SRC member said commission representatives have already met with new Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao and would try to schedule more such meetings when President Trump’s full cabinet is in place.
He also revealed that Amtrak and Greyhound have entered into a joint venture that would benefit passengers whose schedules might not fit Amtrak’s.
“Say you ride the Amtrak train to Montgomery, Birmingham or New Orleans, and you want to come back the same day, but the train schedule won’t allow it,” he explained. “You can take the Amtrak-Greyhound bus. It will only stop at Amtrak kiosks, only at the points where the Amtrak trains will stop.”
Implementation of the bus service, though, is contingent upon the resumption of passenger rail service. But the SRC is unwavering in his belief that everything will soon begin to fall in place to bring the plan to fruition.
“The FRA has already signed off on it, so it’s mostly a matter of state funding,” said Gehman. “In December (2016) we granted $2.5 million in station renovation grants, and a committee has been established to oversee the grants and make sure everybody follows through with their commitments."
PASSENGER RAIL ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITIES
Passenger rail service would provide improved accessibility for the more than 2 million residents in the proposed service area between New Orleans and Orlando that includes a growing senior population
• Would boost Gulf Coast economy by connecting the growing population centers and tourist destinations, and supporting diverse jobs, health care, higher education, beaches, casinos and multiple military bases
• Provides critical evacuation route for Gulf Coast cities
• Provides alternate mode of transportation for more than 5 million people annually visiting the beaches of southern Alabama, alone, with similar numbers visiting the beaches of northwest Florida and southern Mississippi
• Would support growing tourism industry which has increased revenue per available room by 27 percent in the Florida Panhandle, 20 percent along the Alabama Gulf Coast, 10 percent throughout the Mississippi Gulf Coast and 51 percent in Orleans Parish
• Would serve the workforce of growing industries such as oil and gas, petrochemical, aerospace, shipping and the military
• Would attract additional sales tax revenue from casino patrons, visitors and tourists
• Will serve communities with very high poverty rates with limited access to transportation alternatives
SOURCE: Southern Rail Commission