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 Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina washed away swaths 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, Mayors from New Orleans to the Florida panhandle are plotting how to bring back the trains, and add new ones.
At present, communities along the Gulf are bracing for Hurricane Issac, expected to make landfall this evening, but earlier this month, More than 40 mayors gathered in Mobile, Alabama to hear from Amtrak what they need to do to get trains rolling.
According to a review of a 2009 report [PDF] 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 is strategizing how to lobby its representatives in Congress to get the federal funding process going.
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, Ala., Mayor Sam Jones wants an alternative to “automobiles and planes, both of which he described as ‘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 [PDF] with three options: restoring the old, sleepy tri-weekly nighttime service; extending the famous City of New Orleans route from Chicago to New Orleans so it turns east to Orlando, Fla.; or launching 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, Ala., station.
Still, mayors want the service back, and the primary goal of their big meeting on Aug. 16 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, Ala., 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 member of Congress 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.”