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 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 a number of 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, Blair said. Amtrak is “working toward” hiring employees for the service, buying equipment and beginning a marketing initiative, he said.
“We are working hard on implementation to start service early next year,” Blair said.
It’s unclear how the Mobile City Council will react to these new developments. About a year ago, councilors made the approval of money related to a new station 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.”
This page is available to our local subscribers. Click here to join us today and get the latest local news from local reporters written for local readers. The best deal is found by clicking here. Check it out now.
Already a member of the Lagniappe family? Sign in by clicking here