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7 Years After Katrina Washed it Away, Mayors, Amtrak Considering Gulf Coast Rail Bigger than Before

Friday, August 24, 2012 - 03:46 PM

A 2009 Amtrak plan suggests three option s for restoring gulf coast service from New Orleans to Florida.

In 2005, there weren't many passenger trains rolling from Florida to New Orleans -- just three a week in each direction.

Now there are none.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina washed away swathes of rail along the Gulf Coast owned by CSX. Amtrak used those tracks for the last stretch of the Sunset Limited service mostly for passengers going to, or coming from, as far off as Los Angeles. After the storm, Amtrak suspended -- though it did not officially cancel -- the Gulf Coast portion of the route. Seven years later,  from New Orleans to the Florida panhandle Mayors are plotting how to bring back the trains, and add new ones.

More than 40 mayors gathered last week in Mobile, Alabama to hear from Amtrak what they need to do to get trains rolling. If they get their way, the new Sunset Limited Gulf Coast service will be more frequent than before in hopes of boosting tourism and commerce.

According to a review of a 2009 report by Transportation Nation, restoring train service would not be cheap, and the old Sunset route did not turn a profit. Bringing it back requires federal or state support to build it, and then almost certainly, a subsidy to run it. So, the coalition of mayors and local leaders are strategizing how to lobby their representatives in Congress to get the federal funding process going.

Chart from Amtrak Presentation on PRIIA Plan presented to Gulf Coast Mayors. Figures are 2009 dollars.

The Panama City News Herald reports: "Officials believe reviving the train service would be a boost to tourism and would help the economies of communities across the Gulf Coast still recovering from Katrina." According to the paper, "Mobile, Alabama Mayor Sam Jones wants an alternative to cars and planes, both of which he calls "too costly."

A 2008 act of Congress, the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIAA), required Amtrak to come up with a plan for restoring service. The national rail company offered a 52 page report with three options: restoring the old, sleepy tri-weekly nighttime service, extend the famous City of New Orleans route from Chicago to New Orleans so it turns east to Orlando, Fla. A third option is to  launch a new daily service.

Amtrak tells Transportation Nation the plan is there and done. "It is now the decision of federal and state policymakers to determine if passenger rail service should be restored, identify the preferred option and provide the additional funding for capital and ongoing operating costs."

Some of the stations along the route were so infrequently used that it will be hard to argue for restoring them in tight fiscal times. A local website, NorthEscambria.com reports that fewer than three people per week boarded Sunset Limited trains at the Atmore, Alabama station.

Still, Mayors want the service back, and the primary goal of their big meeting on August 16th, was to gather facts they can use to convince Congress to pony up funding. The Pensacola News Journal reported support from the mayors of New Orleans, Pensacola, Fla. and Mobile, Alabama and others want to take economic arguments to their Congressional representatives. Daily daytime service would make it possible for someone to live in Biloxi, Miss, or nearby and work in New Orleans, or for New Orleanians to take short vacations along the Gulf Coast. That's the kind of story a Congressman would need to hear to devote taxpayer money to an unprofitable line.

Another meeting of mayors and local supporters will take place in the next three months months to focus in on Congressional proposals to pitch to federal lawmakers. Mayor Jones of Mobile, told the Alabama Local "we've probably got another six months worth of preparation before we step out with our plan and proposal."

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Comments [7]

Miked1958

Any updates since this August 2012 meeting by all the Mayors? They talked of meeting again in six months which would of put them around Jan 2013.. We are now in Oct 2013 and seem no closer to having this Jacksonville to New Orleans run restored..

Oct. 21 2013 06:36 PM
Mark

What Woody and JHH said.

Feb. 04 2013 12:44 AM
Eric F

"Alabama Mayor Sam Jones wants an alternative to cars and planes, both of which he calls “too costly.”"

Too bad one can't get to Mobile by bus. One can't get to Mobile by bus, right?

Aug. 28 2012 02:50 PM
J. Howard Harding

The statement that passenger on Amtrak's Sunset Limited New Orleans to Florida service was "...mostly for passengers going to, or coming from, as far off as Los Angeles" is misleading. The vast majority of Sunset Limited passengers are not on-board the train for its entire route length. Most national system train passengers get on and off at stops between the route end-points. A significant number of passengers who used the Sunset east of New Orleans connected to other Amtrak trains at Jacksonville and/or New Orleans, a factor Amtrak appears to have ignored in its service alternatives report.

Aug. 26 2012 12:29 PM
Woody

Another thing to think about: building a corridor service by layering new or extended long distance trains. It's a long range plan.

So a daily Sunset Limited could run (why-not-Miami-Ft Lauderdale-West Palm Beach?)-Orlando-Jacksonville-Tallahassee-Mobile-Biloxi-New Orleans-Lafayette-Houston-San Antonio.

The Palmetto could also be extended from Savannah down to Jacksonville and west to New Orleans. Now two trains a day each way between Jacksonville and New Orleans.

Then City of New Orleans could be extended east to Jacksonville-Orlando-Tampa/Miami. Gives you three trains a day on that Jacksonville-New Orleans corridor.

Restore the Gulf Breeze, to run again Birmingham-Montgomery-Mobile-Biloxi-New Orleans. Now four trains a day in that core Mobile-Biloxi-New Orleans corridor.

The new Gulf Breeze could be (a) one end of a Crescent train that split at Atlanta or Birmingham. Or (b) eventually the Southern end of a new train extending the Lynchburger into a new long distance route, NYC-D.C.-Charlottesville-Lynchburg (as now)-Greensboro-Charlotte-Atlanta-Birmingham-beyond. Or (c) the Lynchburger extended to Roanoke-Knoxville-Chattanooga-Huntsville-Birmingham-beyond. Or (d) a completely new route Chicago-Indianapolis-Louisville-Nashville-Huntsville-Birmingham-beyond.

Top that off with another new train, Mobile-Biloxi-New Orleans-Houston-San Antonio. Now you have five trains a day in the main corridor.

With that, the frequencies would be much like the five trains on the Cascades route, including the Coast Starlight, that run Seattle-Portland and a few stops beyond on both ends. They carry more than 850,000 passengers a year. Or like the Empire Service four trains a day running NYC to Buffalo, counting the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago and the Maple Leaf to Toronto, with more than a million passengers a year.

More frequencies on a route do not split the market so much as they expand it. More customers are attracted when they have more choices of departure and arrival times.

Of course, Amtrak will need to buy a few hundred new coaches and other railcars before it can begin growing like this. But we need to plan ahead.

Aug. 25 2012 05:38 PM
Robert Mann

The 'study' is slanted to favor the least amount of effort on the part of Amtrak. The City of New Orleans running to Orlando is circuitous in the extreme, making it effectively 2 trains, one north of the New Orleans, and another east of the city, both of which would be filthy due to the extended time between servicing.

This leaves a daylight, or overnight, or both, corridor type train, or even remanufactured Budd-RDC self propelled rail cars. These cars could easily make a 3 car train, and their cost and crew requirements were designed to allow the maximum cost recovery.

The mayors and the citizens are being misled.

BOB
metrojacksonville.com

Aug. 24 2012 08:51 PM
Woody

One possibility not examined was daily Sunset service. At the time of the PRIIA report, that was impossible to imagine -- due to Amtrak's severe shortage of equipment, and the strong opposition of the Union Pacific which feared interference with its freights.

This year Amtrak tweaked the Sunset schedule. Reportedly, part of the agreement to do that included a promise to UP not to ask for a daily train for the next three years. No worries, not likely it could get enuf new equipment until then.

But a new order to replace Amtrak's ageing fleet could allow a modest growth in the fleet starting about three years after the order is placed. Meanwhile UP has been working to doubletrack most of its Sunset route at the Western end.

Of course, the haters want to snuff Amtrak. But if they fail, and new cars are ordered, the Sunset Limited could go daily and Amtrak just could grow.

Aug. 24 2012 05:46 PM

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