A study prepared by Amtrak shows a number of scenarios in which the Southern Rail Commission could be heading down the right track in bringing passenger rail back to Mobile and the Gulf Coast.
At the behest of the multistate commission, Amtrak studied ridership estimates and the cost effectiveness of five options that would link New Orleans to Orlando for the first time since service of the Sunset Limited was suspended just before the landfall of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. The study’s findings were first discussed during an executive session of the SRC’s November meeting held in Mobile, but the results were made public late last month.
Amtrak determined a simple extension of the City of New Orleans line to Orlando would result in the greatest number of riders of all options, generating annual ridership of 153,900, but would include a funding commitment of nearly $10 million. An alternate line extension, providing daily round-trip service from Mobile to New Orleans, would cost almost half that at $5.5 million, but would only attract ridership of 138,300.
Another group of alternatives would include two daily round trips from New Orleans to Mobile, attracting a ridership of 38,400 annually and costing more than $6 million. It could include a bus to complete the line from Mobile to Jacksonville, but adding that option would raise the cost to $8 million, while attracting slightly more riders at 43,400.
A third set of options would consist of only one long distance round trip from New Orleans to Orlando. It would generate an annual ridership of 69,100 passengers and cost around $14.4 million.
All of the options would require funding from local and federal sources, SRC Chairman Greg White said. There would also be opportunities for private investment.
“A long distance train could include private and public funding,” SRC Chairman Greg White said. “A daily round trip train between New Orleans and Mobile would need to be funded locally.”
The funding, in any case, could come from three or four states, including Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, White said.
One concern with the re-establishment of rail along the Gulf Coast is the spotty record of timely performance for the Sunset Limited. Although daily train service along the Gulf Coast began with the Gulf Coast Limited in 1984, the Sunset Limited extended the line from Los Angeles to Miami in 1993.
“While the Sunset Limited was initially a success, as the years went on the train suffered from significant operating and timekeeping problems which were a product of more general operating problems experienced by the host railroads,” the report states. “While the host railroad operating problems were beyond Amtrak’s control, the 2,764-mile length of the Sunset Limited route greatly magnified the impacts to service.”
Trains frequently ran several hours late and in some cases, the report points out, were as much as 24 hours behind schedule.
“Amtrak made several adjustments in an attempt to address the delays, including adding more time to the schedule, but to no avail,” the report states. “By 2005, Amtrak was busing passengers east of New Orleans on nearly one-third of all trips in an effort to keep the Sunset Limited on schedule over the rest of its route.”
The drag the schedule had on ridership was felt as the number of riders dwindled each year of its service. According to the report, ridership for 1993 was 148,387. Ridership increased to a total of 174,927 the next year, but fell each of the following years, down to 97,366 in 2002. The line saw an increase to 105,033 in 2003 before falling again to an all-time low of 81,348 in 2005, its final year.
“The Sunset Limited service was suspended in August of 2005, immediately prior to Hurricane Katrina making landfall along the Louisiana-Mississippi border,” the report states. “Due to the significant damage to the region, (CSX) railroad service was also suspended. Following the restoration of the (CSX) mainline in the spring of 2006, Amtrak did not restore the previous service east of New Orleans.”
Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari admits the poor on-time performance had an impact on ridership for the cross-country train. He said reliability is the “single biggest determinant of passenger satisfaction,” but suggested changes have been made to greatly improve the on-time performance of a future Gulf Coast line.
For instance, since 2005 CSX has rebuilt much of the route and it now is a lot shorter, meaning delays will not have as big an impact as they once did.
Magliari said Amtrak is generally in favor of more service in more areas, but the individual communities and states would have the most significant say in whether a project moves forward. For instance, he said, local communities would pick where any new stations would be and Amtrak would then negotiate with freight companies for the right to lease track.
Magliari said there is demand all over the country for alternatives to Interstate driving and as a result, Amtrak has broken ridership records nine of the last 11 years.
With the study completed and mayors of many Gulf Coast cities initially on board, White said the next step is a test run of a proposed route to give local stakeholders and elected officials a feel for it.
At the SRC’s meeting in Mobile last month, several elected officials expressed support for the proposal, while others were more reluctant to get on board. Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson called the idea “preliminary,” while Congressman Bradley Byrne remained skeptical about federal funding opportunities.
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