Mon. May 29th, 2023

An Amtrak inspection train, filled with government and rail transportation officials and media, arrives in Mobile, Ala., on Thursday Feb. 18, 2016. The trip marked the first time in more than 10 years a passenger train has left New Orleans headed east to Florida. (file photo)
Amtrak’s return to the Gulf Coast will come in 2023, but few details are being disclosed about last month’s settlement in a case before a federal agency that could have national implications over how passenger rail is conducted along freight lines.
An Amtrak official disclosed Friday that a pending settlement ending a legal proceeding before the U.S. Surface Transportation Board will enable a 2023 start of Amtrak service connecting New Orleans to Mobile with four stops along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
“We have an agreement in place with the other parties involved in bringing service to the Gulf Coast and all around the country people are saying they want Amtrak service, now there is a federal partner to help in ways that was never here before to make some of this happen,” said Marc Magliari, spokesman with Amtrak, who declined to disclose additional details.
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The unknowns remain because they are wrapped up in a confidentiality agreement that prohibits the parties from disclosing much about the settlement.
Among the unanswered questions include the exact date for Amtrak’s restart, the costs needed to restart the service, and what kind of concessions various entities involved in STB case agreed upon, ticket fares and how much investment will be made in getting Mobile prepared for the new passenger trains.
“Unfortunately, we all signed agreements and I know this is frustrating,” said Knox Ross, chairman of the Southern Rail Commission which held its quarterly meeting in downtown Mobile. The SRC, in conjunction with Amtrak, is spearheading the operations of the Gulf Coast service and has long championed the project. “We’re going to have two round trips during the day. It’s something Mobile has not seen in 50 years.”
Ross added, “This is a big deal. All parties are reasonably happy with the solution. We’ve worked hard, all parties, to make this a win-win for the port, host railroads and the traveling public.”
Amtrak, the freight operators along the Gulf Coast – CSX and Norfolk Southern — and the Alabama State Port Authority are the parties involved in the case before the STB.
For much of the past year, the freight operators and the Port Authority objected to Amtrak’s plans, sometimes vehemently so. At one point last year, the Port argued that twice-daily Amtrak service would result in a “calamitous” outcome for the port’s freight rail business through downtown Mobile.
The Southern Rail Commission hosts its quarterly meeting on Friday, December 9, 2022, at the RSA Battle House Tower in downtown Mobile, Ala. (John Sharp/
A representative with the Port Authority was at Friday’s SRC meeting. The SRC is a pro-rail group consisting of members in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.
“From the Southern Rail Commission’s point of view, we hope this agreement will result in better movement of freight traffic across the coast and that it results in similar agreements in other places as well,” said Ross, declining to disclose the elements to the agreement, which still needs to be signed off by the STB.
“What we are dealing with in many parts of the country and the South is that we have railroads built before the Civil War, and the late 1800s and … the rail business has changed dramatically in recent years,” Ross added. “You are seeing long container trains moving through, and you are running those trains along a railroad with sidings built for trains half the size. We are all trying to figure this out and the agreement and the agreement, I think, addresses those (infrastructure-related) concerns and actually solves a lot.”
The SRC is involved in a recent grant application to the Federal Rail Administration that, if rewarded, could inject additional federal funds toward improvements along the Gulf Coast rail line. The same grant program, called the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI), provided $33 million toward the project in 2019. This year, there is $1.4 billion available for projects nationwide – over four times the resources in 2021, according to the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association.
SRC officials and those with Transportation for American declined to discuss details on how the settlement in the STB case could affect the CRISI grant application.
The push for federal funds also comes as rail advocates are eying the Biden Administration for money to make improvements to the Bonnet Carre Spillway rail bridge, which runs parallel to Interstate 10 along Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana, and to push forward an Amtrak connection from New Orleans to Baton Rouge.
In addition, the SRC is seeking federal funds to examine corridor expansions that include a connection of Atlanta toward Dallas along the Crescent rail line that connects New Orleans to New York City. That rail line includes three stops in Alabama – Anniston, Birmingham and Tuscaloosa.
Ross said the goal remains to make Union Passenger Terminal in New Orleans a hub, that would connect Mobile with newer routes toward Baton Rouge and toward Dallas, Texas.
For now, the focus will be on restarting the Gulf Coast route. An Amtrak official confirmed that the temporary platform stations in Mississippi – Pascagoula, Biloxi, Gulfport, and Bay St. Louis – are “virtually complete,” and will be finished by the end of this month.
Very little work, they said, needs to be done in Mobile where Amtrak will be able to stop at the foot of Government Street adjacent to Cooper Riverside Park.
Marc Magliari, spokesman with Amtrak, said the work at the Mobile platform would be a “fairly quick project.”
Promoting the new train service, once touted as a priority, does not appear imminent until more disclosures are allowed.
“It will not be a secret when we start selling tickets for these trains,” Magliari said.
Ross said that once the public witnesses “tangible work” being done in and around the railway by Amtrak, they will recognize that the route will soon be restarted.
Ross declined to say how much the ticket prices will be, opting to compare the Gulf Coast route to a similar service that connects Chicago to Milwaukee, which costs users approximately $50 for a round-trip.
“It will be reasonable,” Ross said. “It’s not for the wealthy or anything like that. We want to make sure it’s affordable.”
David Clark, president & CEO with Visit Mobile and a SRC member, stressed the importance of “patience” with the finalizing of the agreement’s terms before they are disclosed and more information about the Gulf Coast route is known.
“A lot of people have been hoping for this for a long time,” Clark said. “It’s close to the finish line. We want to know everything so we can move forward.”
He added, “A little patience and holiday cheer and hopefully by the first quarter of the year, we’ll know more.”
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