The latest new and shiny thing that advocates argue will make the local economy hum is Amtrak’s possible return to the Gulf Coast.
The problem is, the idea is not really all that new, nor is it shiny.
Nonetheless, that prospect has a lot of local officials from New Orleans to Jacksonville, Florida, buzzing about the endless possibilities of a new economic awakening on the Gulf Coast.
But haven’t we been there, done that, once before?
Right now this discussion centers on an upcoming study from the Southern Rail Commission that will explore the feasibility of Amtrak making a triumphant return.
Allow me to save the Southern Rail Commission’s time and the taxpayers’ money: There’s no reason for Amtrak rail service as it currently exists to return to the region.
Once upon a time, Amtrak served Mobile, until just before Hurricane Katrina in 2005, with its Sunset Limited line, which ran from Los Angeles to Orlando. But the Sunset Limited line now terminates in New Orleans.
If anyone remembers Amtrak service in Mobile pre-2005, there were not a lot of takers. It made middle-of-the-night and early-morning stops every other day for passengers headed in either direction, with only an automated ticket kiosk. It was rarely on time and was hardly cost effective.
For example, if one were just looking to make a quick trip to Pensacola, you would board a train at 2 a.m. (assuming it was on time) and arrive in Pensacola at 4:30 a.m., first making a stop in Atmore. To return, you would have to wait until the next morning, or possibly another day, and catch a return train in Pensacola at 6 a.m. and arrive back in Mobile at 8:30 a.m.
Who in their right mind is going to do that? That’s the problem with rail service in America in 2015.
The perception of rail service is that it is high-speed and can get you to your destination more efficiently than you could driving an interstate highway. That only exists between Washington, D.C., and Boston, and even that service is offered on a very limited basis.
The reality is travel by rail is incredibly slow. Passenger trains operated by Amtrak often have to cede the right-of-way to freight trains. They also slow down to a crawl through every little town with a railroad crossing. That can add hours, and sometimes even days, to a trip you could have otherwise made by car or plane at much lower cost.
For that reason, this new fascination with Amtrak making a comeback is a bit perplexing.
The history of Amtrak in the area isn’t exactly one to be celebrated. In 1993, 47 passengers died and another 100 or so were injured in an accident at a rail crossing over Bayou Canot just north of Mobile. Granted, that was more than 20 years ago, but the memory is fresh enough for some to be reluctant to use passenger rail.
Prior to that derailment, for a short period in 1989 Amtrak also offered an Alabama-centric line, similar to one of the ideas currently proposed, that ran from Birmingham to Mobile with stops in Montgomery, Greenville, Evergreen, Brewton, Atmore and Bay Minette in 1989. It was a route that was ultimately eliminated in the name of cost cutting.
Obviously there was not a market for it then. So why should we believe there is one now?
Reviving train service along the part of the Gulf Coast would be a lot like going out and buying an old Wurlitzer jukebox that plays 45 RPM vinyl records. It’s very novel and quaint and could be quite a conversation piece for any setting.
But would you make that your primary source of music? Unless you’re yearning to hear on old Glenn Miller tune and want to specifically enjoy it in the manner people did in the ‘40s, you’re probably going to opt for downloading an MP3 on iTunes over figuring out a way to listen to it on that jukebox.
Amtrak coming back to Mobile won’t be any different.
There’s no reason to believe people will flock to Mobile because Amtrak has restored rail service to the city. No one anywhere is going to say, “Amtrak is back in Mobile, Alabama? Well, let me book my room at the Battle House because that is our new vacation destination.”
Let’s say our elected federal legislators deem Amtrak’s return important enough to put money into some appropriations bill and then earmark it for this specific project. There is perhaps not much of a reason to resist this endeavor.
But as a warning to all these cities in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi that lie on the Interstate 10 corridor between Jacksonville and New Orleans along the Sunset Limited line, be cautious about investing in any sort of train depot or infrastructure to facilitate this rail service because your taxpayers probably won’t get a whole lot of use out of it.
On the whole, if the country is going to sink money into rail service, it better allocate it toward planting the seeds for high-speed rail infrastructure. Bridges and tunnels would have to be built to replace railroad crossings at roadways. New tracks would have to be laid for these so-called high-speed bullet trains.
High-speed rail would require an entirely different type of infrastructure than what currently exists. The country is not years, but decades away from making that jump.
For now, rail travel in the U.S. is an outdated model and is run by a bureaucratic boondoggle known as Amtrak.
It’s fine if you’re on Capitol Hill and want to go to Midtown Manhattan, which is still a three-hour train ride even at high speed. But if you’re going from Mobile to Houston or anywhere else for that matter, you’ll be better off driving, heading to Mobile Regional Airport and buying a plane ticket or even going to the Greyhound station to buy a bus ticket.
Ask yourself: If you had the option of taking a train along with any of the above modes of transit, which one are you likely to choose?
My guess is it probably won’t be the train.