On Feb 18, Amtrak did something it often struggled with during the time it did provide regular service to Mobile — bringing a train from New Orleans on time. In fact, it was 15 minutes early.
Greeted by a jubilant crowd, the Excelsior Band and even Chief Slac, Amtrak parked an inspection train in front of the Mobile Convention Center for a brief stop on its way to Jacksonville, Florida.
The event was one of many steps required to bring back rail service to Gulf Coast communities last served by the Sunset Limited more than a decade ago.
“There’s so much support and enthusiasm for this,” Sarah Feinberg, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, said just feet from where the train stopped.
In a study released in December, Amtrak noted that the late arrival of trains had an impact on declining ridership numbers before the service was discontinued in 2005. A spokesman for Amtrak previously said adjustments have since been made to improve on-time performance.
Despite the record, local officials stepping off the train last Thursday trumpeted the possibility of a return to service.
“It has been way too long since Amtrak was last here,” Mobile City Council President Gina Gregory said. “There’s no doubt this area of the Gulf Coast is growing … and is in need of alternate transportation. It would be nice for Mobile to be a hub.”
Mobile County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood said Amtrak’s return would help link communities together and bring excitement to the area.
Councilman Fred Richardson said with Airbus finally producing planes, Austal producing Littoral Combat Ships and cruise ships leaving from the city again in November, Mobile is ready for the return of passenger railroad service.
“I’ve done my own inspection,” he said. “We passed the inspection.”
Amtrak won’t return without costs to Gulf Coast communities, though. Collectively, it would cost the communities along the Gulf of Mexico around $10 million in annual operating expenses to bring service back, Southern Rail Commission President Greg White said.
That estimate is based on ridership estimates of 147,000 per year, he said. Ridership along the Gulf Coast could be up to 50,000 to 60,000 more when added to a new connection in the Dallas area, White said.
In addition, Mobile and other cities would be responsible for the renovation or creation of terminals for the passenger service.
City spokeswoman Laura Byrne, who was also aboard the train from New Orleans, said this week it’s too early to speculate on any future plans for a train station or terminal locally.
“There are so many further steps,” she said. “There are a lot of things that need to happen on the federal level.”
South Alabama Regional Transportation Commission Director Kevin Harrison said there are many options for Mobile in terms of a station or platform. The city could use space at GulfQuest Maritime Museum, the convention center or the City of Mobile, Alabama Cruise Terminal for train passengers.
“Nowadays, a lot of terminals are unmanned,” Harrison said. “The conductor will do the ticketing. Bigger cities have employees.”
While Harrison said the infrastructure is already in place in many cases, federal grants are available for cities looking to renovate old terminals or build new ones.
The new passenger train route could be an economic development tool for many of the communities along the Gulf Coast, White said, adding that the SRC is awaiting an infrastructure need report from CSX on any required upgrades to tracks along the route.
“Once we see that we’ll have an indication of what’s required to move forward,” he said.