Further on Down the Line

Photo by Matthew Nichols
Photo by Matthew Nichols

It has been roughly ten years since Hurricane Katrina decimated areas of the Gulf Coast, leveling infrastructure and displacing hundreds of thousands of people. While many of the hardest hit areas are nearly fully recovered, various luxuries that were destroyed have yet to be replaced.

One of those luxuries was Amtrak’s Sunset Limited, an admittedly poorly run and often-late three-day-a-week passenger rail service. With the Gulf Coast getting back to normal after hurricanes, an oil spill and a recession, lawmakers and exploratory committees have begun to entertain the idea of bringing back a better version of the train service, and even extending the line. The talks have people growing nostalgic for affordable train routes along picturesque routes, and the possible economic impact has legislators and businesspeople alike salivating.

Enter the Southern Rail Commission (SRC), an organization comprised of governor-appointed commissioners from each member state of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. The SRC is the primary force advocating for the restoration and extension of the passenger rail service, and they have had a long presence in the area, dating back to 1982 when the 97th Congress enabled the formation of an early version of the group, according to the organization’s website.

In 1983, the Louisiana-Alabama-Mississippi Rapid Rail Transit Commission was formed, and the immediately undertook a feasibility study to look at a proposed commuter service linking New Orleans to Baton Rouge, Slidell and Mobile. Just a year later, the Gulf Coast Limited began service for the sole purpose of World Fair transportation and ceased operation in January 1985.

There was no rail service for a long time, but in April of 1993, after years of negotiations and studies, the SRC successfully brokered a deal to extend the historic Sunset Limited Amtrak line from Los Angeles to Jacksonville via New Orleans, thus creating the first truly transcontinental line in the country’s history. In 1997, the service was extended to Orlando.

Then came Hurricane Katrina, which in May of 2005 devastated infrastructure up and down the Gulf Coast. Just three months later, the SRC presented plans that included capital improvements, operating plans, simulation modeling, ridership forecasts, cost estimates and more.

CSX—an international transportation company offering a variety of rail, container shipping, intermodal, trucking and contract logistics services—restored freight service along the Gulf Coast in August of 2006, but passenger service remained suspended. In 2009, Amtrak submitted the Gulf Coast Service Plan Report to Congress, a move that got the wheels spinning on eventually resuming passenger train service.

In April of 2013, the SRC drafted letters from all potential on-route mayors to legislators and transportation committees in charge of rail, encouraging them to restore Gulf Coast passenger rail operations to daily service.

In early 2014, the SRC applied for $1 million in TIGER (transportation investment generating economic recovery) grant money to commission a study on the feasibility of restoring train service. They worked with Amtrak to study the route, look at existing infrastructure, work out prospective prices and more.

The plan was to offer seven-day-a-week service, something constituents in places like Biloxi were clamoring for.

The group looked at a host of route and funding possibilities, engaging neighbor states like Texas, Georgia and Florida for help and buy-in. It was ultimately decided that the best option was to hook up to existing rail that ran from New Orleans to Chicago. The new rail would take a turn in New Orleans and head east, toward stations in Lafayette, Mobile, Pensacola, Tallahassee, Jacksonville and ultimately Orlando.

This undertaking of elongating the rail would generate annual ridership of an estimated 153,900 passengers and would require an annual operating budget of about $9.49 million. Of all the alternatives, including both shorter and longer but less-frequent trips, this option provides the highest total ridership, according to the Amtrak report. These numbers are close to the 1994 peek of nearly 180,000, before ridership decreased due to poor on-time performance. At one time, rider participation dipped as low as 80,000 per year.

“Other options would’ve required a larger subsidy, which may have been harder to procure and also may have boosted ticket prices,” said Knox Ross, former chairman and current member of the SRC.

Right now, the SRC is working with local leaders to achieve buy-in and hear from residents and constituents regarding what they would like to see. A huge investment like almost 700 miles of rail service requires that future customers are on board and willing to pay.

“For prospective routes less than 750 miles, the decisions are left to the state and local levels,” said Marc Magliari, a spokesman for Amtrak, which would lease the existing CSX rails. “We would pay an access charge to operate on their infrastructure.”

In Pensacola, residents and government leaders are excited about the prospect, especially considering that the Pensacola Station—a one-sided train platform at 980 E. Heinberg St.—still stands.

“We are definitely excited about the possibility of the return of passenger rail service to our area,” said Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward. “This is something that would be a great benefit to Pensacola and to the Gulf Coast.”

Amtrak forecasts that resuming rail service would lead to a huge economic boom. After all, the area is home to numerous regional, national and even international tourist destinations and events, including Mardi Gras, theme parks, beaches, casinos, NCAA bowl games, cruise terminals and more. This is big news for the business world, too, with military bases and major defense contractor facilities bringing in the best and brightest technological and engineering minds from around the area.

“There’s a huge economic benefit to be reaped here, and every state is excited about taking part in this,” said Ross. “This would really tie together all of Northwest Florida, lower Alabama, and lower Mississippi. There was a fear for a while that these regions would just be ‘pass-through’ areas, but this rail service allows these communities to be tourist and business destinations.”

If this all comes to fruition, it would mean up to $12.72 million in annual ticket, food and beverage revenue. No final ticket prices have been listed yet, though early reports place them around $10 between stops, with about an average hour and 35-minute travel time between stations.

When it comes to public transportation at those prices, every age group benefits, according to Ross.

“Seniors who can no longer drive would be free to travel between states as they like,” said Ross. “Furthermore, young people in our colleges and universities are among the highest percentage of public transportation-users.”

The rail would also connect growing populations in diverse sectors like healthcare, higher education, tourism and defense. The annual route provided for more than 5 million people annually visiting beaches in southern Alabama alone would free up our airlines and interstates for even more visitors.

Train operations would help the rich and poor, too, with the former providing additional sales and bed tax revenue and the latter having access to cheap public transportation alternatives.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the SRC has achieved support from 22 mayors and six planning organizations from across the region. This huge amount of early buy-in makes Ross and others hopeful about the next phase of the process: working with Amtrak, CSX and the Federal Railroad Administration to set up a large contingent of people to welcome the train and see what actually has to be done as far as rebuilding infrastructure.

“We want to make sure we don’t interfere with CSX’s current operations,” said Ross. “It has to be advantageous to everyone to maximize funding possibilities. This is a manifestation of long-time commitments, and we want to make sure we do it right.”

One funding option includes the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, a five-year, $305 billion highway bill signed by President Obama in late 2015 that could include outlays for railroads. Other possibilities are TIGER and even RESTORE Act money, a law outlining direct allocations of civil penalties paid by BP after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The plan for resuming passenger rail service is certainly gaining steam, and according to Ross, Pensacolians could be riding a beautiful rail car to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras 2020. In the meantime, he said, it is incumbent upon both citizens and representatives to keep pushing for funding and assuring agencies that Northwest Florida is indeed ready for this hugely impactful transportation initiative.