The return of passenger rail service in Mobile is full steam ahead for Amtrak, with transportation representatives speaking to members of the Southern Rail Commission (SRC) last Friday morning about the steps to take between now and next year.
David Handera, Amtrak vice president of stations, facilities, properties and accessibility, told commissioners from Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana that Amtrak’s focus on returning service to the Gulf Coast would mean building or repairing passenger platforms, lighting and signage.
In Mobile’s case, Amtrak is looking to pay for upgrades to a platform near the Arthur R. Outlaw Convention Center. Handera said the existing platform would need better accessibility and upgrades would most likely have to be paid for by the city. The city would need to improve “the path of travel” for passengers from the platform to the parking lot, Handera told commissioners.
Jim Blair, Amtrak senior director of schedule and planning, gave a bit more detail on the struggles between the agency and the freight rail companies as it pertains to completing a joint modeling study on the return of Gulf Coast rail service.
While all the parties worked on the study diligently, Blair said, the project, which was started in 2019, was beset by several delays. One such delay was a software upgrade that made previous data collected for the study unusable. So, despite giving itself a year to complete a seven-month study, there was very little data to work with when the timeline ended.
“We set aside seven months to complete the study and we found ourselves in November and December of last year not progressing,” Blair said. “There were a number of hiccups. We had spent a lot of time and money toward that effort and the fact is it wasn’t getting us anywhere close.”
Amtrak has since reached out to the freight rail companies — CSX and Norfolk Southern — to inform them of its decision to move forward with service. Amtrak is “working toward” hiring employees for the service, buying equipment and beginning a marketing initiative, Blair said.
“We are working hard on implementation to start service early next year,” he said.
It’s unclear how the Mobile City Council will react to these new developments. About a year ago, councilors approved about $3 million for operation of the service for three years contingent upon the completion of the study that Amtrak now admits it has no intention of completing. The council could also balk at the approval of $80,000 for the study of a new station site for the same reason.
Despite the local setbacks, John Robert Smith, chairman of Transportation for America, spoke to commissioners about the possibility of a new Mobile train station at the Brookley Aeroplex. During the meeting, Smith asked Handera if Amtrak would be willing to pay for a platform, signage and lighting if the alternate site study found Brookley was a better option.
“I can’t commit to that today,” Handera said. “It is something we would want to work together on.”
The Alabama members of the SRC seemed adamant including partners like the freight companies and the port was important as the process moved forward. David Clark, an SRC member and CEO of Visit Mobile, called it a “short-sighted leadership approach” to not re-engage the freight lines on a modeling study.
“To give up on the modeling study altogether is not what right looks like,” Clark said. “To me, common sense says let’s get back to the table.”
At the same time, the advantages of having Amtrak in the city are not lost on Clark, a lead tourism promoter for the area. When people think of tourism, iconic draws like the Golden Gate Bridge come to mind, but what makes a city a true tourism destination is more nuanced, he said.
“The thing about tourism is it’s not about iconic things that make a destination … often it’s about all the little things,” he said. “Amtrak would be a nice piece of the culture, an opportunity to experience coastal communities.”
The train, which will travel between New Orleans and Mobile, while making stops in Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi and Pascagoula in Mississippi, could bring coastal communities together, Clark said.
In addition, he expects tourism focused on the Clotilda, the last ship carrying enslaved Africans to the U.S., to bring many international visitors to Mobile. Those international travelers, Clark said, are more likely to use railroads and many stay longer, like two to three weeks.
He expects the train could bring as many as 15,000 to 20,000 more visitors to Mobile per year than the city is currently seeing.
“That’s a cool thing,” Clark said. “That’s 20,000 more people who will stay here, dine here and shop here.”
Also for Clark, the idea of a passenger rail station or platform at the Brookley Aeroplex in the future is exciting from a multi-modal travel perspective. Travelers could board a train, come to Mobile, stay overnight and leave via airplane.
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