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Mobile's Amtrak deal..."what's next?" An APR News Feature

Amtrak Blog

Passenger rail service between Mobile and New Orleans took a big step forward this week. That’s when the Mobile City Council voted to pay up to three million dollars to cover some operating costs for the first three years. However, you may not want to get in line to buy a ticket just yet.

“There’s a lot more work to do,” says Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari. He says money still has to be found for a new train station in Mobile and other improvements. Amtrak will also work with freight operators CSX and Norfolk Southern on a study to determine the impact of having Amtrak on the same route as cargo trains.

“We have to worry about getting the infrastructure money necessary for this to happen, says Magliari. “We have to see what the results of the latest study on infrastructure improvements say. That should be available once the work is done by us, CSX and NS later this year. Probably by the end of the summer if not sooner,” he contends. “Then we’ll have a reset to talk about what happens next.”

Credit Pixabay

Mobile has not had passenger train service since 2005. That’s when the Sunset Limited passed through three times a week between California and Florida. The new service would have two trains a day. Restoring passenger trains on the single-line track from Mobile to New Orleans worries some who send freight along those rails. That includes Jimmy Lyons. He’s director of the Port of Mobile.

“I’m not really necessarily opposed to the Amtrak,” says Lyons. “I’m just opposed to impairing our operations, reducing our service to our customers, potentially reducing, reducing our cargo and not providing substantial benefit.”

Lyons says one train hauls as much freight as one truck a minute for a whole day.

“One 9,000-foot train, each car carries about five truckloads, so if all that had to convert, you’d have another truck a minute,” he contends. “I don’t know, you take an ambitious number on Amtrak and you’re going to lose 80 cars a day. So it’s not a trade-off from a congestion standpoint.”

Credit Pixabay

Watching all this is Southern Rail Commission Chairman Wiley Blankenship. He says passenger trains will not interfere with the operations of Alabama’s seaport or other freight haulers.

“The port is vitally important to the state, definitely vitally important to Mobile and Coastal Alabama, so we’re going to do what we need to do to keep that in mind as we’re moving forward,” says Blankenship.

Another concern is the total cost of the project to taxpayers. That was one reason why Mobile City Councilman Joel Daves says he cast the only vote against the resolution on Tuesday.

“My concern was primarily with the operational expenses, which I think are too much of a burden on the taxpayer because by Amtrak’s own estimates,” he says. “The line is going to lose $7 million a year and for every one dollar the passenger pays, the taxpayer pays $10. I think the subsidy’s too large.”

Credit Pixabay

Southern Rail Commissioner Stephen McNair says passenger trains should bring in more money in taxes than the project will cost.

“When you look at the fact that over 3 million visitors came to Mobile County in 2018. When you look at the numbers and the increase in tourism annually and the projections of from the University of Southern Mississippi based on the economic impact study of this train, 1 percent of new visitors to Mobile County arriving on this train more than pays for itself in lodging taxes and sales taxes,” McNair says.

Wiley Blankenship credited the effort by local residents and officials with getting the program on the tracks, but there’s still a long road ahead.

“I think it sends a clear message that Mobile, Mobilians want to see this train moving. But we do have a lot of work to do,” he says.

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