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Amtrak service may return to Mobile in 2023

Amtrak-Gulf Coast Route
David Goldman/AP
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AP
FILE - This file photo shows passengers boarding an Amtrak train heading to New Orleans from Atlanta on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016. A federal board is hearing testimony on whether to let Amtrak resume passenger train service linking New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, over the objections of freight companies. A hearing began Monday, April 4, 2022 before the Surface Transportation Board. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

It could be all aboard for the return of passenger train service to the Gulf Coast in the upcoming year. The last train carrying passengers out of Mobile left the station in 2005. The last regular daily runs between Mobile and New Orleans were about a half century ago. But now, after years of work and lengthy negotiations, supporters say they’re confident that 2023 is the year that trains roll along the Gulf Coast again.

“Basically, what I can say, we have an agreement that will result in a three-hour and 23-minute run time between Mobile and New Orleans,” said Knox Ross. He’s chairman of the Southern Rail Commission. That’s a three-state agency working to restore passenger train service in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

“We worked very hard with our partners to achieve that and I think everybody's going to be very happy with the result,” he said.

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Guy Busby
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The plan met with some initial objections from groups such as freight line operators. They own the tracks and didn’t want their schedules disrupted by passenger trains. Officials with the Port of Mobile also raised concerns about how the trains running into Mobile near lines going to the docks could affect their operations. Knox Ross says all parties have reached an agreement, but the details are still confidential.

“But I will say that I think everybody's going to be happy with the result of what happens,” Ross contends. “We worked really hard, all parties have worked really hard to make this a win-win for the port, the host railroads and the traveling public and I think that's been successful and so I think everybody's going to be really happy with that and we're pleased with it.”

The plan calls for two trains to run twice a day between Mobile and New Orleans. Trains will leave each city in the morning and return in the evening.

“We're going to have two round trips a day,” Ross said. “It's going to be really morning and afternoon. It's going to be something that Mobile has not seen in 50 years, but as far as the details, we're still trying to work all that out.”

Ross says ticket prices haven’t been determined yet, but the cost will be reasonable.

“You'd have to compare it to other similar services around the country, say a Chicago to Milwaukee run or the Downeaster,” Ross speculated. “I can't really speak to Amtrak on what they would charge, but it would be very reasonable. If you would go from here to New Orleans, it would be much cheaper than driving over there and parking your car. But until we know exactly what the schedule is, exactly how it's going to work, then we can kind of get a gauge on what we think the ridership's going to be. But it's going to be reasonable. It's not going to be something just for the wealthy because part of the issue that we have in our state is we need to provide transportation for everybody.”

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Guy Busby
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The Amtrak website lists one-way coach tickets from Chicago to Milwaukee at $25. Ross says that while the negotiations have been worked out a lot of work remains to be done.

“There are a lot of moving parts to get there. Amtrak talked about equipment issues and things. They've got to get all that together. There's improvements that have to be made obviously. There's got to be improvements for the station project in Mobile. Once all that gets going, we'll have a better idea exactly we can sail,” he said.

Ross says Amtrak will also be at work preparing the tracks for the return of service.

“The next milestone I think people can look for is, what Amtrak will have to do is begin to qualify crews,” he said. “That means they'll have to get Amtrak equipment out on the line to qualify their crews. When you see that, then you'll know something's going on.

Marc Magliari is a spokesman for Amtrak. He says the line is ready to resume service between Mobile and New Orleans.

“We're in a very excited place in the United States and certainly on the Gulf Coast,” said Magliari. “We have an agreement with the other parties involved in bringing service to the Gulf Coast and all around the country people are saying they want Amtrak service and now there's a federal partner that will help in ways that are never here before to make some of this happen. We look forward to bringing service to the Gulf Coast. We can't talk really about the agreement at this point, but we look forward to bringing service to the Gulf Coast.”

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Magliari says ticket prices will be up to local agencies, either the Southern Rail Commission or state government.

“State sponsored trains are operated by us under contract with an entity. It could be the Southern Rail Commission. It could be one of DOTs. And decisions about fares are made by the folks who hire us to run the trains,” he pointed out. “Some states, some regions have a philosophy of charge as much as you can, so the cost locally is as low as it can be. Other states have a philosophy to make it as cheap as possible to put as many people on the train as possible. That's not an Amtrak decision.”

The last passenger train to run along the Gulf Coast was the Sunset Limited between California and Florida. That train stopped in Mobile about three times a week, usually in the early hours of the morning. That service stopped after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the tracks in Mississippi in 2005. Knox says the tracks were repaired, but service never resumed.

“At the end of the day, I real happy with what I see right now,” said David Clark, one of the four Southern Rail commissioners from Alabama.

“This is moving forward. It seems like there's an agreement that's been made. A lot of work has been done by a lot of people. So, I think it's just tremendous news and could be a very great thing,” he said.

Clark is also president of Visit Mobile. That’s the city’s convention and visitors bureau. He says the return of passenger trains will be a major benefit for the city and state.

“So, what a great opportunity it would be for multi-portal kind of transportation. Those international visitors who come in from New Orleans. For European visitors, they love rail, so what a great opportunity to hop on train and come over here,” he said.

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Clark says studies indicate that the service will bring thousands of visitors to the area.

“Southern Mississippi did a study a couple or three years ago, about visitation and what that could be and the low impact of that was 16,000 visitors coming into that,” said Clark. “There was another higher number and another higher number. I always like to be conservative, so I believe that at least 16,000 new visitors coming in.”

Clark says the train will be a link between communities with a common heritage in three states along the Gulf Coast.

“A lot of times, people don't talk about the benefit of uniting coastal communities and uniting cultures, different people in this and how you meet people and place making in communities and how you build that. I think that's really a fun thing to think about and an experience that maybe we have on the table again soon,” he believed.

It’s been a long wait for that experience, but if all goes as planned, that wait could be over in the upcoming year. Again, Knox Ross.

“I think what will happen is people will begin to see tangible work being done. People get tired of saying, yes, we're going to do it, yes we're going to do it. That's the announcement, yes, we're going to do it, but I think what they're going to see out of this over time is tangible work being done and once you see tangible work, that you can say, 'yes, this is part of bringing the train,' then people will get very excited about it because they'll see that is real,” Clark said.

Guy Busby is an Alabama native and lifelong Gulf Coast resident. He has been covering people, events and interesting occurrences on America’s South Coast for more than 20 years. His experiences include riding in hot-air balloons and watching a ship being sunk as a diving reef. His awards include a national Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists as part of the APR team on the series “Oil and Water,” on the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Some of his other interests include writing, photography and history. He and his wife, Elizabeth, live in Silverhill.
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