A day after the Mobile City Council delayed a vote to fund a study related to the location of a new train station, Amtrak announced it will move forward with plans to bring passenger rail back to Mobile in 2022.
The service from Mobile to New Orleans is still on track, despite the setback from the council, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari confirmed to Lagniappe on Wednesday. This assurance comes even after some members of the council argued that previous matching grant awards came with a stipulation to team up with freight rail operators CSX and Norfolk Southern for a study laying out additional infrastructure costs. That stipulation, specifically, has not been met.
“We have notified the freight railroads of our intention to begin service next year,” Magliari said in a statement. “We have again asked the freight railroads where they believe there are more issues. We safely and successfully operate together elsewhere in (the) United States, with dependable freight service coexisting with reliable and relevant Amtrak service. That’s what the Gulf Coast deserves, too.”
In a phone interview, Magliari said the combined study was taking too long. It was originally scheduled to take two months, but hadn’t been released almost a year after it was first planned, he said.
“The existing agreement between our parties expired,” he said in the statement. “Something that should have taken seven months was far from completion after a year. In fact, discussions have been underway for five years. There was no sign of any conclusion in sight.”
Magliari added the Southern Rail Commission has about $33 million in grant money to make improvements to the track and a previous study found passenger rail to be feasible.
“The Gulf Coast needs and wants Amtrak service, particularly after the 2017 study showed where freight railroad improvements are needed and since 2019, the Southern Rail Commission has had $33 million in federal grants to pay for them,” Magliari said in the statement.
Despite the optimism of Amtrak officials that train service could be available soon, state port officials are concerned about how the passenger train will impact operations at one of the city’s leading economic engines.
Alabama Port Authority spokeswoman Judy Adams said leadership met with Amtrak officials two weeks ago and asked that the study be continued over the port’s concern that the addition of passenger rail could severely disrupt its running of nine different railroads.
“They seemed surprised that we serve nine railroads here,” Adams said. “Even at our meeting, they didn’t know trains ran on the tracks.”
As for the 2017 study — touted by Maglinari — showing the proposed route was feasible, Adams called it “devoid of facts.”
“We requested in the meeting that they finish the study,” she said. “Our understanding was it was two months out.”
The port has major concerns over congestion issues if passenger rail takes precedence over freight lines, Adams said.
Also at issue is the fact that there are not rail side tracks long enough to accommodate the freight trains currently coming in and out of the port, Adams said.
Mobile’s port is one of the fastest growing in the country and has expanded greatly since the last time Amtrak had service into the city, Adams noted. A part of that growth, she said, comes from congestion at larger ports along the West Coast. That’s why the Port of Mobile now serves the far East, Adams said.
While Adams acknowledges that larger ports and more expansive passenger rail service coexist in other places in the country, many of them have more than a single line coming in and out of the port. For instance, along the East Coast, Adams said the infrastructure is much better suited for a symbiotic relationship between passenger and freight rail.
In a statement obtained by Lagniappe Wednesday, Norfolk Southern also confirms it asked Amtrak to continue the study.
In an email, Norfolk Southern spokesman Jeff DeGraff wrote that the study Amtrak has seemingly walked away from is part of a “well-instituted process.”
“There is an established process for introducing new passenger rail service on freight rail lines recognized by both the freight and passenger railroad industries,” he wrote. “It involves identifying, through a data-driven study, what infrastructure is necessary to ensure that the new passenger service is transparent to freight operations and doesn’t negatively impact the freight rail customers.”
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