Amtrak passenger service along the Gulf Coast is on target to return in 2022 and could come in the early part of next year, an official with the railroad company confirmed Tuesday.
Marc Magliari, spokesman for Amtrak, said the nation’s passenger rail service reached out to CSX and Norfolk Southern in January to inform them “that we intend to begin service in 2022” that will connect New Orleans to Mobile with four stops in Mississippi – Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi, and Pascagoula. It will be the first time that passenger trains have rolled along the Gulf Coast in more than 16 years.
Magliari said the disclosure to the freight operators came at the conclusion of one year of negotiations involving Amtrak and CSX Corp. and Norfolk Southern. The parties were part of an ongoing study into how passenger train service would affect the freight operators.
He said the study should have lasted only seven months but appeared to have no conclusion date.
“We’ve spent a year to get through this process and it did not appear there was any end in sight,” Magliari said. “Instead of postponing the publicly sought and desired new Amtrak service for an indefinite period, we have notified the railroads that we believe we can start the service. There is money set aside for the capital improvements. There is money granted for the operating costs.”
Amtrak plans to provide more details about the project during the Southern Rail Commission’s March 5 meeting.
“We’ve said publicly we want to begin this service as soon as possible,” said Magliari, confirming that the Amtrak has proposed beginning the Gulf Coast service as early as January 2022, or in less than 10 months.
He added, “We also have asked the freight railroads to give us feedback on how practical that is for them. We remain open to talking to the freight railroads about their concerns.”
The completion of an analysis over how Amtrak’s operations would impact freight trains had been anticipated by Mobile city officials. The study’s completion was one of the contingencies for the council’s approval of spending up to $3 million over three years for the operations of the Gulf Coast route. Up to this point, the city’s commitment represents the only Alabama financial dedication into the three-state project.
An additional $2.2 million had been requested from an Alabama source to support the improvements along the rail line.
The project has secured millions of federal funding to move forward, that includes the state matches except from Alabama. In 2019, the project received $33 million in a federal grant for improvements along the rail line. Mississippi has dedicated $15 million, Louisiana $10 million and Amtrak $6 million toward capital improvements.
But as Magliari has pointed out, studies have already occurred into the rail line and the costs associated with returning passenger rail. The Gulf Coast Working Group, created by Congress in 2015, provided a deep dive analysis into the project. Their report was completed in 2017.
“In good faith, and because of our desire to serve our customer the (Southern Rail Commission) directly, and the three states indirectly, we proceeded along this path,” said Magliari, referring to the latest rail study. “As it turned out, it was leading to no end in sight for yet another study.”
Representatives with the freight rail operators hope the studies continue, though federal law gives Amtrak has preference to operate along the freight line. Historically, the company exercised those rights by operating the transcontinental Sunset Limited for years before the service was disrupted after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the region in 2005.
“There is an established process of introducing new passenger rail service on freight rail lines recognized by both the freight and passenger railroad industries,” said Jeff DeGraff, a spokesman with Norfolk Southern. “It involves identifying, through a data-driven study, what infrastructure is necessary to ensure that the new passenger service is transparent to freight operations and doesn’t negatively impact the freight rail customers. The public entities sponsoring the service finance the infrastructure construction prior to passenger service being introduced. It is a well-instituted process, one that history has shown to work.”
Cindy Schild, spokeswoman with CSX, said the study “took longer than expected” due to the COVID-19 pandemic and “other factors.” She said that once modeling results are available, a subsequent engineering study is supposed to take place that she said would last another “two to four months” that would assign costs to any infrastructure identified in the modeling needed to “avoid degradation of service to freight customers.”
She added, “CSX has requested Amtrak resume and complete the study.”
The project has been long opposed by the Alabama State Port Authority, which also wants Amtrak to continue with the study. The port’s interest in the project has garnered the attention from Republican U.S. Senator Richard Shelby, who has pushed for more federal investments into the facility include a massive dredging project.
Blair Taylor, a spokeswoman for Shelby, said the senator has been participating in discussions.
“The Port Authority and many of its customers have voiced concern regarding the return of this service in Mobile and the potential congestion on the rail line,” Taylor said. “Amtrak, the Port Authority, and freight lines have been discussing efforts to minimize these concerns, particularly with the increase in intermodal rail traffic since passenger rail service stopped on the Gulf Coast in 2005. Prior to restoration of the Gulf Coast line, Senator Shelby believes that all parties involved should have access to the data and information needed to best determine the impact passenger rail service would have on economic growth and commerce in and around the Port of Mobile.”
The return of Amtrak to the Gulf Coast comes as Mobile considers what it should do with a future train station. The council, on Tuesday, tabled an $80,000 expenditure for an alternative train station analysis to study a possible location at the Brookley Aeroplex that would locate near a future commercial airport.
Amtrak is likely to utilize a location near Cooper Riverside Park as its immediate stop in downtown Mobile. It would be in a site where the city’s train station once stood before it was destroyed by Katrina’s floodwaters.
“It’s possible there could be a downtown stop and a Brookley stop,” said Magliari. “The reconfiguration of the Brookley area is a discussion we’ve had with the public bodies in Mobile for quite a while. One does not preclude the other.”
Wiley Blankenship, chairman of the Southern Rail Commission, said the council can request, at a later date, resources from the SRC to fund an analysis of a train station at Brookley.
The momentum toward getting the service restarted coincides with efforts to bring U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to the Alabama Gulf Coast to learn more about the project that is a one-of-its-kind service Amtrak has not previously offered along the Gulf Coast. Described as a “regional” service, the train would provide daily trips between Mobile and New Orleans and would also cater to localized interests such as providing services during festivals and other events.
Amtrak’s only connection in Alabama is the Crescent, which runs between New Orleans and New York, with stops in Birmingham, Tuscaloosa and Anniston.
Mississippi U.S. Senator Roger Wicker, who invited Buttigieg to the Gulf Coast and who is a longtime advocate for the project, said the efforts to restore passenger rail to the Gulf Coast “remains a top priority.”
This article originally appeared on AL