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Work Continues On Passenger Rail Resurrection

Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media

Restoration of passenger rail service along the Gulf Coast is the focus of meetings this week by Amtrak and the Southern Rail Commission.

Six meetings, which began on Tuesday in Jacksonville and Live Oak, Florida, will feature what’s next in the work to get the trains back on track for the first time since before Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“It’s been about 14 months since we ran the demonstration train across the route, and people are curious where things stand,” said Amtrak spokesman Mark Magliari.

To that end, they’re out meeting with residents in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Other meetings are scheduled for Wednesday in Marianna and Mobile, Alabama. The final two sessions are set for Thursday in Gulfport, Mississippi and New Orleans.

One of the project’s biggest supporters is U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, who provided a staff member for the meeting in Live Oak.

“We’ve been talking to Senator Nelson’s office and the Senator is pretty interested in the issue,” Magliari said. “In fact, he’s one of the reasons why we’re having these meetings. He said ‘Folks in the Panhandle need an update,’ and we’re out here giving it.”

“If nothing else, it showed there’s a lot of grassroots interest and support in passenger rail on the Gulf Coast,” said Greg White, Chairman of the Southern Rail Commission. The same week as the inspection train, they kicked off the Gulf Coast Working Group as mandated by Congress.

The SRC has been meeting each month since, and has received studies from Amtrak and CSX Railroad on infrastructure needs.

But in all candor, White said the CSX study appears to be “excessive.”

“Some of the things that they included in their modeling were a growth factor for the next 25 years and what traffic on the route would look like then,” White said. “With the suggestion that we build today for what that may be. And I’m not sure that any of us can see our way clearly to do that.”

One major part of the plan, says Knox Ross with the Southern Rail Commission, is to set up so-called “legacy stops” along the Gulf Coast – which in Florida would be Pensacola, Crestview, Chipley, Madison, Tallahassee, Live Oak, and Jacksonville.

“There’s not a significant amount of work that has to be done to stations in Florida, because they’re fairly modern,” said Ross. “I think there’s some [Americans with Disabilities Act] work that has to be done, but those could be brought up to speed very, very quickly.”

If Amtrak does return to the Gulf Coast, it would offer seven-day-per-week service, compared to the three-day-a-week schedule before Katrina. Ross also says that could also jump start a couple of other desired routes-- an extension of the Interstate 20 corridor between Meridian, Mississippi and Fort Worth, Texas; and service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

At the end of the meetings on Thursday, Amtrak’s Mark Magliari says they’ll give the communities some information on which they can take action. 

“Make sure that members of Congress are fully funding Amtrak,” Magliari said. “Certainly we want to work with the communities who have not yet received funding, to either improve their stations or make them ADA compliant. Or to help them figure out where they want their station to be.”

Plans are also in the works, says Magliari, to team up with the cities and go to Washington and their respective state capitals to talk about the investments needed for the return of passenger rail service. Amtrak CEO Wick Moorman says they’re committed to running trains as soon as funding and host railroad agreements are settled.