While recently going through family photo albums for what I admit were very nefarious reasons — it was my younger sister’s birthday and I was looking for childhood photos of her that I could post on Facebook to “honor” her (yes, the mischief between siblings never truly ends) — I came across a picture of the two of us I’ve always liked.
It’s one of us sitting next to each other in a lift-like ride, on a high perch, slowly gliding above the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans. The piecemeal memories I have of that occasion with our parents are fun and pleasant ones. My most distinctive memories, however, are of how we got there and back. It was by train.
I’m quite sure it was by design, but Amtrak had just started passenger rail service between Mobile and New Orleans a month before the May 1984 opening of the World’s Fair in the Crescent City. Like many who attended, my parents decided a most memorable way to travel would be via rail. I’m so glad they did!
Since then, a love affair with rail travel has ensued. I’ve had the pleasure of traveling by train in Europe and on other Amtrak routes here in the United States. It’s a boyhood fondness and fascination that’s never been extinguished. That’s why, like so many locally, I’ve been quite excited over the prospect of Amtrak passenger service being restored in the Port City. It’s long overdue.
The Sunset Limited, a name and route dating all the way back to the 1890s, ran from New Orleans to Los Angeles for most of its history, before its route east of New Orleans was swept away by Hurricane Katrina. The sun had set on the part of the route that included stops in Mobile and Atmore en route to Orlando, Florida.
The old rail service came through Mobile three times each week, making stops in the wee hours of the night — inconvenient to say the least. This time plans are in the works for a daily stop with times more conducive for optimal passenger travel.
Buoyed by money allocated in the recently approved federal transportation bill to study the restoration of the route, hopes are running high for its eventual return. More than just a stop, Mobile can possibly become a hub for rail activity.
Just as Mobile sits at the confluence of interstates 10 and 65, and is a major conduit for automobile traffic flowing east and west as well as north and south, many envision the same when it comes to passenger rail travel. The chairman of the 21-member Southern Rail Commission, Greg White, who hails from Andalusia, Alabama, sees Mobile as a major player when it comes to the restoration of passenger rail service on the Gulf Coast.
John Robert Smith, chairman of the board of Transportation for America, noted that Mobile could become one of several “anchor cities” playing a critical part in the linkage of a Southern rail network. The reemergence of the east-west Sunset Limited route and the north-south Crescent route, which journeys all the way to New York, coupled with a new bridge eventually stretching across Mobile Bay could be the catalyst for a transportation renaissance in our area.
In my travels by train throughout Western Europe, I was given a grand and majestic tour of lands steeped in history and beauty. Rail travel allowed me to bask in and appreciate that aspect of European culture.
Likewise, journeying on an Amtrak trip from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City, Utah, there seemed to be too much natural beauty and wonder to take in easily. Rail travel allowed me to experience such blessings of nature.
The critics of a possible restoration of passenger rail service on the Gulf Coast are missing the big picture. In so many ways it’s a win-win scenario. Gathering recently in Mobile, many mayors and representatives from locales that have invested in renewed or upgraded rail services and facilities spoke of how it has revitalized their downtowns and lured businesses as well as tourists.
With so much natural beauty, a soon-to-come cruise ship, a flowering downtown, Mardi Gras, an increasingly diverse retail market and a variety of other attractions and cultural amenities, Mobile cannot help but prosper from the daily coming and goings of a passenger rail service.
Such an experience captivated me as a boy, and current as well as future generations can likewise be affected by a mode of travel that intertwines history with modernity like no other.