Passenger rail service could be returning to Pensacola and other Gulf Coast cities. An “inspection train” is scheduled to travel across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida next month to gauge that possibility.
Hosted by Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman, a group of elected officials, community leaders and others will have a close-up look at CSX infrastructure and get an idea of the economic, cultural and mobility advantages rail has to offer.
“The inspection train will operate from 14 stops, all the way from New Orleans to Jacksonville,” said Mark Magliari, an Amtrak spokesman in Chicago.
Amtrak’s Sunset Limited passenger line ran from New Orleans west to Los Angeles. East of New Orleans, the route overseen by CSX Railroad hauled cargo. Then Hurricane Katrina disrupted both. Greg White, who chairs the Southern Rail Commission, says Hurricane Katrina could lead indirectly to expanding the passenger route eastward.
“That [Sunset Limited] was an every-other-day service. We’re asking for daily service, seven days a week, from New Orleans to Orlando,” said White.
Speaking last month in Mobile at a meeting to discuss Amtrak restoration, White said interest began to pick up steam about two years ago. SRC members have been talking with some of the region’s congressmen as well, and they appear to be warming to the notion. Amtrak officials are also in the mix.
“When you look at travel, it’s not just the mode of travel, but an experience for the family,” said Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward. “The people that travel by train enjoy the experience. So it will be interesting to see if we can add this amenity to the community.”
Hayward says much of the infrastructure already is in place downtown, including the building that housed the train station.
After the inspection train trip, SRC Chairman Greg White says they’ll conduct a post-mortem, using in part a recent Amtrak study on feasible service options and other needs.
And when can Gulf Coast residents look forward to riding the rails? White says that depends.
“We don’t have a target date, per se, but we have had conversations about 36-60 months,” White said. "2019 we could see passenger rail return to the Gulf Coast. And it’s very possible that it could be much quicker than that.”
Another question to be answered is how to pay for the service. The SRC plans to double down on efforts to generate funding sources to help meet the need that passenger fares don’t cover. Those could include local and state governments; private industries and businesses, and Uncle Sam.
For Mayor Ashton Hayward, taking any funding proposal to the Pensacola City Council remains for now, in the roundhouse. He’s also not sure how far he’ll ride on the inspection train – or whether he’ll board it at all. He does plan to greet the passengers, adding that, based on his experience riding public transportation elsewhere in the U-S and in Europe:
“It is fun to travel by train.”