Chipley joined 20 other Gulf Coast communities Friday in welcoming Amtrak as the passenger train line rolled into Bill Lee Station for the first time in more than a decade.

CHIPLEY - Chipley joined 20 other Gulf Coast communities Friday in welcoming Amtrak as the passenger train line rolled into Bill Lee Station for the first time in more than a decade.

Dubbed the "Amtrak Inspection Train," Amtrak and the Southern Rail Commission (SRC) conducted a tour across the GulfC oast, from New Orleans to Jacksonville Thursday and Friday.

The train carried state and local elected and appointed officials, community leaders, federal stakeholders, and industry representatives in an effort to examine the existing CSX railroad infrastructure and to better understand rail's economic, cultural and mobility opportunities.

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.

Sources working in the multi-agency partnership to restore Amtrak service to the Gulf Coast state the 750-mile route's return is a near certainty.

"With a multi-state endeavor like this, you need to generate support on every level, and the SRC has done a good job of that," said Joe McHugh, Amtrak Vice President of Government Affairs and Corporate Communication. "This group has their act together. They are informed and driven and have the best shot of anyone (of launching a rail service) of anyone I've worked with in the last ten years."

McHugh states the response of communities like Chipley plays a large role in the proposal's success.

"The welcome we've received in each community has been outstanding," he said. "This demonstrates to political leaders that there is strong support to re-establish service, that citizens are passionate and desirous of the service, and that it will make an economic impact."

Amtrak is working with host railroad company CSX to establish the final routes. CSX has indicated interest in Amtrak's plan to have two daily Gulf Coast routes - a round trip from New Orleans to Orlando via Jacksonville and a shorter route that would offer a round trip from New Orleans to Mobile.

Although officials report they found no major infrastructure obstacles during the inspection, the largest obstacle will be working to improve the route's signal, as much of the single-line rail lies in a non-signaled area, also known as "dark territory."

Signals are used to indicate to conductors how they should proceed; without them, trains rely on orders transmitted by radio between dispatchers and train crews and are mandated to maintain a slower rate of speed.

CSX is exploring options to expand the railroad's current signal coverage and is examining viable passenger operating plans that won't interfere with freight systems.

"Re-introducing passenger rail along this line would involve extensive computer-based modeling to assess capacity on this route, identification of infrastructure improvements needed to support the proposed service, potential additional safety requirements and funding considerations for operating and capital costs," said CSX Corporate Communications Officer Kristin Seay.

"With all proposed passenger operations on its lines, CSX’s participation is based on four principles – safety of the public and CSX employees, capacity to serve CSX’s current and future freight customers, adequate funding requiring no subsidy by CSX shareholders, and reasonable liability protection against new risks. Every new passenger proposal must fully address these principles."

Now that the inspection train is complete, Amtrak is ready to take the next step.

"Now, we will need to work with CSX and find out what it will take," said McHugh. "We will look at traffic patterns, look at signals, and see what is needed to make this happen."

"CSX has a solid record of supporting passenger transportation across its network," added Seay. "In partnership with Amtrak and other stakeholders, CSX is committed to working through each step of this process."

The time frame to restore Amtrak service to the Gulf Coast is three to five years.