Gulf Coast corridor wins federal grant to restore passenger service

Amtrak, CSX must negotiate route improvements before New Orleans-Mobile, Ala., operations can be restored
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Gulf_Coast_1_Johnston
Crowds greet a New Orleans-Jacksonville, Fla., inspection train at Mobile, Ala., on Feb 18, 2016, at the former site of the Amtrak station where the Sunset Limited last stopped in 2005. Most Mobile port trackage and CSX’s main Mobile yard east of this station would not be materially impacted by Mobile-New Orleans trains to the west.
Bob Johnston
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Amtrak’s Joe McHugh, left, studies CSX’s rebuilt bridge at Bay St. Louis, Miss., during the inspection train run on Feb 18, 2016. Tracks had been swept off the bridge by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Bob Johnston

MOBILE, Ala. — The effort to restore Amtrak service on the former Sunset Limited route east of New Orleans is being boosted by a $33-million federal grant, but route improvements must be worked out before that service can begin.

The federal money, part of a $66-million effort, will help finance capacity-improvement work on 140 miles of CSX Transportation trackage between New Orleans and Mobile, Ala. The Federal Railroad Administration’s Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) grant was announced Friday at the Southern Rail Commission meeting in Baton Rouge, La.. Those funds will be matched by commitments to supply capital investments and initial operating support from Mississippi, that state’s department of transportation, Louisiana, Amtrak, and the city of Mobile.

Although Alabama stands to benefit from the proposed two daily route trips serving its port city  along the heavily-congested U.S. 90 and Interstate 10 corridor, the state under Gov. Kay Ivey has so far declined to participate in efforts to secure a CRISI grant. [See “After missing funding, Gulf Coast rail effort seeks a way forward,” Trains News Wire, July 5, 2018.]

In a statement to al.com, Ivey said she “wants to make certain we know what kind of long-term financial commitments will be, long after the grant has been spent,” and what effect the passenger service would have on the Port of Mobile, which is already receiving $150 million in state aid for an enlarged ship canal. The Southern Rail Commission estimates Alabama’s share of the capital match at $2.7 million.

However, Commission Vice Chairman Knox Ross tells Trains News Wire that the group has had numerous meetings with port officials to discuss their needs and continues an active dialogue.

“We all agree that Alabama Docks issues need to be resolved before service can begin, but the CSX yard and port track leads are all east of the proposed station near the convention center in downtown Mobile, so there will be minimal interference,” Ross says.

He adds, “Our ultimate goal is to extend one of the round trips east to Orlando [as a long-distance train] and we are looking at future service between Mobile and Birmingham, Ala., but New Orleans trains won’t pass through that area. In fact, there is money set aside in the grant to study what mitigations might be necessary to run passenger trains through the yard if and when that should happen.”

Ross says Amtrak and CSX are set to revisit a 2017 Federal Railroad Administration report that estimated necessary New Orleans-Orlando infrastructure improvements at $117.9 million. A CSX consultant had put forward a figure exceeding $2 billion [see “Gulf Coast plan revealed,” “Passenger,” Trains, July 2017]. The current $66-million estimate was derived by stripping out elements east of the Mobile station, which include a long stretch of unsignaled dark territory.

Amtrak management has fully supported the efforts to move the initiative forward by the commission, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Govs. John Bel Edwards (D-La.) and Phil Bryant (R-Miss.), and Transportation for America Chairman John Robert Smith. Joe McHugh, the company’s vice president, state-supported services, says in a statement, “Amtrak endorsed this grant application because we believe this project makes sense for the Gulf Coast region ... and we are looking forward to working with the team to accomplish the next steps.” McHugh told Ross he expects that, assuming agreements are reached, service could begin in 24 months.

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