I’m one of those people who spent several months bumming around Europe after college, traveling from city to city on the fabulous Eurail system, so I have a romantic and practical attachment to train travel. It’s really the nicest way to go somewhere, looking out the window at the countryside, sipping a glass of wine, listening to strangers snore.
OK, I will admit my memories of train travel have probably become more romantic in the years since. Certainly there were times when sitting in the gen-pop section of the train was anything but romantic. Bathing isn’t the popular sport in Europe that it is here, so the hotter months had much to offer in the way of various types of body odor from across the continent.
There was also the time a man took off his nasty boots and placed his reeking feet on my lap, forcing me to fight fire with fire, and on a particularly crowded trip to Prague I ended up sleeping on the floor only to wake up with a guy standing on my chest. For real. An ancient Gypsy woman also once threw a curse on me one night when I woke up and caught her trying to steal my backpack.
So it wasn’t all wine and crumpets.
Still, I’ll never forget my first train trip from Munich to Venice and going through the snow-capped Alps. It was amazing. Almost every trip I took offered a great view of the countryside I would never have gotten on a crowded highway.
I say all that to admit up front the idea of having Amtrak coming back through Mobile is very appealing to me from a romantic, nostalgic point of view. One of my favorite things to do is to drive along the Mississippi Gulf Coast on Highway 90 all the way to New Orleans because it is beautiful, serene and rustic. Several years ago I took a train from Pascagoula to Louisiana while doing a news story and it had those same qualities.
But I try to live in the real world as well, and just because a form of travel is romantic or fun doesn’t mean we should plunk down a lot of money just so we can check that box. For instance, the idea of high-speed ferries gets some people’s toes tingling around here, but every model I’ve seen is highly impractical, costs too much for riders and doesn’t look like it would really affect traffic congestion at all. And the up-front cost for ferries is prohibitive.
The current discussion about an Amtrak route between Mobile and New Orleans, though, I believe does have more opportunity to succeed without a massive buy-in from the city, and I’m glad it’ll be given a chance to show what it can do. What the city has been asked to do is to simply promise $1 million a year for the next three years in order to secure federal matching funds that will essentially let Amtrak test the waters for three years.
That’s not really a lot of money out of an annual budget of more than $250 million, although I do recognize such logic can get you into fiscal hot water pretty quickly. Still, the city has been paying down debt and rebuilding infrastructure at a good clip, so fiscal mismanagement shouldn’t be a big concern here.
It also looks like we’d be getting our part of this deal on the cheap anyway, since Mississippi has committed $15 million and Louisiana $10 million. At the state level, Alabama hasn’t committed a dime. In other words, we’re getting a ticket to the dance for a lot less money than everyone else.
The big question, of course, is will we use it once it’s here? While the answer to that will depend heavily upon how much tickets cost, the initial numbers tossed around are reasonable enough to make sense for local travelers.
The initial cost estimate was $28 one way. So that’s $56 round trip and $102 for a couple. For a family of five, the ol’ Family Truckster may be tough to beat for a trip to the Big Easy versus train tickets, but for a couple it’s not a bad deal at all. If you drive and stay in NO for even a night, the gas and parking costs are going to offset certainly more than half of the train cost. For a day trip, taking the train would save the cost of a hotel that would be necessary if one were to partake, ahem, of a Hand Grenade or two.
But New Orleans isn’t the only destination of interest. The train will stop in Biloxi, which means easier access to the casinos and shows there. Yes, $102 round trip might be a bit steep to go to Biloxi for a day of watching and betting on football, but it does offer the freedom to have fun without worrying about who’ll be driving back.
Next up: Will it bring tourists to Mobile?
I’ve been around long enough to realize tourism studies always say whatever the people pushing a project want them to say. You could probably propose making a ham sandwich and commission a study to show it will have an economic impact of $3 million from increased tourism. So, I’m not so sure about the early impact numbers of more than $11 million a year. But even if they’re 90 percent wrong, we’re still getting our money back.
It would only take 4,000 visitors, each spending an average of $250, over the course of a year to bring $1 million back into the city. That’s fewer than 12 people a day. The commitment the city made is only for three years, so if people don’t use the train, it’ll be gone quickly.
One of the arguments proponents have made for subsidizing train travel with tax dollars is that it’s essentially the same thing we do when we pave roads and build bridges. I’m not so sure that’s exactly an apples-to-apples comparison since for most of us Amtrak would be an auxiliary mode of travel, but it never has a chance of being a major form of travel if we don’t give it a try.
It would be wonderful if train travel were as convenient, popular and affordable as it is in Europe because it would be so much easier to see our own country, and for visitors to check out a new city. This is a good start along our little stretch of the world, and hopefully people here will get on board so it becomes a long-term part of what Mobile has to offer.
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