It has been roughly 10 years since Amtrak’s Sunset Limited provided passenger rail service to the Gulf Coast, but the Southern Rail Commission will host a meeting in Mobile on Friday, Dec. 4, to discuss the possibility of its return.
It’s a proposal that excites Wiley Blankenship, president and CEO of the Coastal Alabama Partnership, who believes Mobile could be the “crossroads” for at least two future lines.
“Mobile’s in a position to be a major winner in this,” Blankenship said. “I see a lot of really strong positives in it.”
Several drawbacks, at least in the case of the Sunset Limited, included travel times to New Orleans as well as inconvenient arrival and departure schedules. According to a 2005 study, the fare for the route was around $17, which made it about one dollar less expensive, on average, than traveling by automobile. But traveling by rail was more expensive than by bus, on average, the study found.
When the eastbound train was not late, which it frequently was, it left New Orleans at 10:30 p.m. and arrived in Mobile at 1:57 a.m. The westbound train would leave Mobile at 3:29 a.m. and arrive in New Orleans at 9:20 a.m., the study found.
While the trips are longer for standard rail than in a vehicle, or by bus, Blankenship suggested business-minded travelers could accomplish more.
“I go to New Orleans about once a month and I don’t accomplish anything in two-and-a-half hours,” he said. “I could be more productive by train. It would be so much easier.”
The cost and travel-time issues would be resolved with a high-speed rail option, the study suggested. With trains traveling between 79 and 110 miles per hour, the route between Mobile and New Orleans becomes far more efficient, the study found. With stops in New Orleans, Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi and Pascagoula and two stops in Mobile, the high-speed times range from three hours and 27 minutes to two hours and nine minutes.
For the high-speed rail, the price stays about the same, with longer trips a better bargain compared to automobile travel. For instance, rail remains about $1 cheaper from Mobile to New Orleans, but on a trip from Mobile to Gulfport, it becomes about $2 more expensive, according to the study.
The high-speed plans would include a downtown Mobile station and one farther west near Interstate 65.
Blankenship said rail could be the future of short-distance travel along the Gulf Coast.
“International visitors expect it, like in Europe,” he said. “Multiple times I’ve encountered international visitors who rent a car and drive from New Orleans to see our beaches.”
Southern Rail Commission President Greg White, of Andalusia, said while there are no concrete plans in the works, Mobile would feature heavily in any future decisions regarding the return of passenger rail service.
“Mobile is a key part of any overall plan, because another one of the commission’s priorities is a desire to see service from Mobile to Birmingham,” he said. “Currently, Tuscaloosa to Birmingham to Anniston is the only service in Alabama.”
That service is part of a larger network that travels from New Orleans to New York, he said. A Gulf Coast line would tie into it.
As for whether new infrastructure would be necessary, like a passenger terminal, White said the SRC is leaving that up to the city. White also said the SRC cannot provide estimated costs associated with the proposal until Amtrak completes its own study. But Blankenship said grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation could defray some of the costs.
White said new tracks would most likely not be needed, but existing lines may require certain safety upgrades. He said in most cases Amtrak negotiates a contract with freight rail companies for use of their existing track.
Interest in bringing back passenger rail is growing, White said, because there’s an opportunity to grow local economies with it.
“Passenger rail is a key part of overall transportation infrastructure,” White said. “It’s about the integration of freight rail, highways and air traffic. All of these things make for good, complete, serviceable transportation systems that are a vital component to economic development of communities.”
The SRC meeting is slated to begin at 9 a.m. at the RSA Battle House Regions Bank’s Pharr conference room. It is scheduled to last about two hours.
The agenda includes a legislative update from SRC, a Gulf service plan report, an update on the new Baton Rouge-to-New Orleans rail corridor and comments from Birmingham Mayor William Bell, Anniston Mayor Vaughn Stewart, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox and Hattiesburg Mayor John Dupree.
The meeting will also include comments from Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson, as well as the mayors of Biloxi, Pascagoula, Ocean Springs, Atmore and Pensacola. The program will be followed by a question-and-answer session. More information is available on southernrailcommission.org.