Although a perennial liberal hobbyhorse in the Northeastern corridor and on the West Coast of the United States, the push for high-speed rail in this country is making a comeback in the Southeast.
In 2009, President Barack Obama included $8 billion in his stimulus bill for high-speed rail. Although it took five years, the investment is starting to show results in the form of this renewed push. The most high-profile examples include a line that would run from the outskirts of Los Angeles to Las Vegas and line that would connect Tampa with Orlando and then on to Miami.
But also among that 2009 wish-list proposal involved two proposed segments through Alabama, part of the so-called Gulf Coast Corridor.
That corridor will span from Houston to Atlanta with stops in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Biloxi before terminating in Mobile. Another part of the line will run north from New Orleans along the current Crescent Rail Line with stops in Meridian, Birmingham and on to Atlanta.
Should this corridor ever be a reality, the trip from Mobile to New Orleans by rail could be done in a little over an hour, which would include the stop in Biloxi. Don’t make your plans to attend a Saints game at the Superdome by rail just yet, however.
Most Americans have been reluctant to embrace rail as a viable alternative to flying or driving. That seems to be the mood among Alabamians as well. In recent history, the state of Alabama has kept rail travel at arm’s length.
Amtrak served Mobile up until 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 and there has been no effort to re-continue the service.
Amtrak also once offered an Alabama-centric line that ran from Birmingham to Mobile with stops in Montgomery, Greenville, Evergreen, Brewton, Atmore and Bay Minette in 1989 but that only lasted six years before Amtrak eliminated the route in the name of cutting costs.
That does not bode well for any train enthusiasts in Alabama. Politically there is no appetite.
In 2009, Gov. Bob Riley resisted efforts to bring federal dollars to the state in the name of high-speed rail and maintained Alabama’s transportation focus should be on roads and highways.
To make rail transportation more appealing to people in this region, proponents need to offer some sort of benefit analysis beyond the pleas to be more like Europe and Asia, or that this mode is better for the environment.
With the exception of the Acela line that services the Northeast from Washington, D.C. to Boston, rail travel is notoriously slow and unreliable. A round-trip ticket from New Orleans to New York City is $300 — comparable to what round-trip plane ticket would cost.
However a flight from New Orleans to New York City takes three hours while that same trip by train takes 30 hours. If modernized for high-speed rail, that could cut the time in half possibly, which is much shorter than the 19-hour drive. But it’s still not comparable to a flight.
There’s also the whole train experience. While it’s easy to be frustrated by the airline experience — ticket counter lines, checked bag fees, TSA security screenings – train stations aren’t that much better.
Some routes offer breathtaking views – but if you’re just looking to get from point A to point B, that’s not a selling point. Proponents of rail have a lot of work to do to sell in this part of the country.
Opponents have a strong case against the expansion of high-speed rail. In the United States it has required large government subsidies.
It is also expensive to build. According to libertarian publication Reason magazine, most new routes would cost at least $10 million per mile to construct. Reason also says a high-speed rail line would need ridership of 6 million to 9 million people per year to break even.
The highly touted Acela service that proponents point to as a success averages only 3.4 million passengers per year despite being in a highly populated part of the country. Alabama politicians would be right to resist the high-speed rail push going on in other states, including even those with Republicans in charge, like Louisiana and North Carolina.
The state has a lot of road and bridge projects that have been long overdue – the new bridge over Mobile Bay for I-10, a northern beltline for Birmingham, an outer loop for Montgomery just to name a few.
In addition to those road projects, there are things that could be done to improve air travel statewide, especially in Mobile where airfares have continued to be higher for the last 15 years.
To make high-speed rail economically feasible for consumers, gas prices would probably have to hit $10 a gallon and jet fuel would likely have to double or triple in price. That would certainly encourage the push for a reliable alternative to automobile and air travel.
But we’re not there yet and don’t look to be there anytime soon.