Once agreements are finalized between the states, CSX and Amtrak, the rail service could be up and running in as little as six to 12 months, according to Amtrak Director of Government Affairs Todd Stenniss.

MARIANNA — Amtrak officials and members of the Southern Rail Commission (SRC) hosted a meeting Wednesday to update the public on efforts to restore passenger rail service to the Gulf Coast.

The meeting in Marianna was the second in a series of six taking place across the stakeholder states of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

“I can tell you this,” said SRC Mississippi member Knox Ross. “We are closer now than we have ever been in the past 12 years to bringing back passenger rail service.”

The SRC received studies from Amtrak and host railroad CSX on infrastructure needs, and negotiations are ongoing regarding those needs and the cost required to meet them, Ross said.

The congressionally mandated Gulf Coast Working Group, which has been looking at the logistics of restarting that service, is also in the process of preparing a final report to present to the Federal Railroad Administration.

“This is what’s going on now: We will continue to negotiate with CSX about requirements necessary to have a fluid operation of both freight traffic and the passenger service, and we’re waiting on the final report,” Ross said. “Those two things are sort of running parallel right now.”

Once agreements are finalized between the states, CSX and Amtrak, the rail service could be up and running in as little as six to 12 months, according to Amtrak Director of Government Affairs Todd Stennis.

“It’s premature to give an actual timeline because we’re not sure how long it will be before the negotiations are finalized,” Stennis said. “But once the agreements are in place, we’re probably looking at a six- to 12-month period. The question is how long is it between now and when we get to that point.”

Stennis also said that while some of the players have changed — such as a shake-up in leadership at CSX and a new governor taking office in Alabama — the process remains the same and continues to gain steam.

Officials stressed the former stops — known as the “legacy stops” — will remain the same. In Florida, those stops are Pensacola, Crestview, Chipley, Madison, Tallahassee, Lake City, and Jacksonville. One additional stop will be implemented in Live Oak at the request of local officials. 

“The station stops have been selected as the original station stops,” Ross said. “That’s the easiest thing for us to do. After the passenger rail is re-established, we can evaluate the need for more stations on a case-by-case basis.”

Ross also stated the stations would require very little updating.

“There’s not a significant amount of work that has to be done to stations in Florida because they’re fairly modern,” he said. “Some may need to be brought into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, but that wouldn’t take long at all.”

Meanwhile, officials said residents can help by contacting their legislatures and letting them know they want the rail service back.

“Call your representatives,” Stennis said. “Tell them your community wants this service and needs this service, even if it’s for the economic impact alone. If you look at the Florida Panhandle from Pensacola to Jacksonville, that is probably the most prime industrial real estate in Florida.

“There’s hundreds of thousands of acres that’s just sitting there, ready for a big plant to come in. You’ve got I-10 and the railroad. These infrastructure improvements will make those assets that much more valuable.”