The Southern Rail Commission (SRC) will hold its next meeting in the Mobile, AL on Friday (Dec. 4). The panel will discuss the status of their efforts to restore passenger rail service to the Gulf Coast that could include stops in Atmore, Crestview, and Pensacola.
It’s been about 10 years since Amtrak’s Sunset Limited line was operational in the Gulf States, running from New Orleans, Louisiana eastward to Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. But, that all changed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“That is when the gulf coast passenger rail service was discontinued,” said Greg White, Chairman of the Southern Rail Commission. “And, so at some later time as our commission and some others realized that that was not being restored then that became an important issue for us.”
White says their effort to establish passenger rail service from New Orleans to Orlando began to pick up momentum about 18-20 months ago.
“I’m not sure the term would be ground swell, but we’ve seen a very nice movement amongst local leadership in support of passenger rail as they have become better informed, and I think that’s really the reason that we’re seeing the movement in recent months.”
Commission members also have had a number of meetings with Congressmen across the region, and have been working closely with representatives of Amtrak. According to White, they’ve met with Amtrak’s local government liaisons and traveled to Washington to meet with company President Joe Boardman.
“They’ve (Amtrak) hosted us on a couple of regional lines, so we could see how those were managed,” White said. “So, I think they’re excited. We certainly are.”
In fact, representatives from Amtrak will take part in Friday’s meeting in Mobile. Also, as part of the meeting, there will be a Mayors Forum, to include presentations from representatives of Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, and Aniston, currently the only cities in Alabama with passenger rail service.
They will provide an update on the things they’re doing to enhance passenger rail that serves their communities and share what they think the value or impact of that might be.
“Then, we’ll come back to the Gulf Coast mayors, Mayor Stimpson from Mobile and others that are joining us and allow them to express their questions or concerns or thoughts or excitements,” said White.
Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward also has been invited to the SRC Mayors Forum. He’s out of town and won’t be able to attend, but is sending a representative.
“We’re very optimistic about the potential to get Amtrak Services back in the Pensacola area along the gulf coast,” said Vernon Stewart, Public Information Officer for the City of Pensacola. “Public transportation, as we all know, is very effective when it’s used to and from work, and there’s nothing like the thrill of getting on a train.”
Despite the enthusiasm, Stewart acknowledges there is much more work to be done and more that the city has to learn about the effort before Mayor Ashton Hayward is willing to throw his support behind it.
“Just to echo what Mayor Hayward has said, it’s really going to boil down to where the money’s gonna come from,” Stewart said. “And, there’re several different sources and that’s why we’re going to the symposium to learn more about what those avenues are.”
One positive is that Pensacola already has a train station, located on Heinberg Street.
“To my knowledge, the station is structurally sound,” said Stewart. “It has been the source of some graffiti and it is boarded up. But, to my knowledge it is structurally sound and it wouldn’t be too difficult to get it ready and up and operating.”
Stewart says Pensacola’s Economic Development Coordinator Rebecca Ferguson is attending the meeting and will report to the mayor and other city leaders.
Meantime, University of West Florida economist Rick Harper will be watching to see what happens. He says restoring passenger train service to Pensacola is certainly a fun notion, but suggests that such service, particularly high speed rail service, would be more useful in connecting heavily populated areas between Orlando and Miami.
“I’m not sure the numbers are really there in this particular rail corridor, because it’s a fairly low-population, low-density region, so we’ll see what the rail commission says,” Harper said.
The Southern Rail Commission meeting will be held at the Battle House Renaissance Mobile Hotel, 26 N Royal St., in Mobile, AL. It begins at 9 a.m.