For the first time since Hurricane Katrina made landfall a decade ago, a passenger train is rolling from New Orleans to Jacksonville, Florida.
Yesterday and today, local mayors, governors and even senators have been aboard an Amtrak inspection train running between the Southern cities as part of an ongoing push to restore passenger rail service along the whole Gulf Coast, which never resumed after the 2005 storm.
Dozens of other major cities — including Nashville, Las Vegas and Phoenix — have lost Amtrak service in the last 50 years. If service between New Orleans and Jacksonville resumes, it will be the first passenger rail restored in the U.S. in a half-century, connecting myriad small towns and cities, including Pensacola, Tallahassee, Bay St. Louis, Gulfport and Biloxi.
“It’s very hard to get between those cities [without a car],” says Knox Ross, mayor of Pelahatchie, Mississippi, and member of the Southern Rail Commission. The SRC advocates for rail initiatives in the south, with commissioners appointed by the governors of Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.
“All over the country you have smaller communities that are just really suffering from the lack of transportation infrastructure and lack of transportation choices,” says Ross. “We are promoting passenger rail and trying to find ways to make it more effective in our states.”Amtrak’s Sunset Limited once ran all the way from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, with more than 40 percent of ridership occurring east of New Orleans. But service was notoriously unpredictable; trains could be up to 24 hours behind schedule, and by 2005 Amtrak frequently ended up busing passengers east of New Orleans instead, to keep the rest of the route on time.
Despite initial success, ridership experienced a steady decline. After Katrina, the damaged tracks were repaired and freight began to roll again, but passenger service never returned.
Now the SRC and local leaders are pushing to bring it back, and better than before. “We’re looking at a seven-day-a-week service, much better service than what was there, much more effective, that connects a lot more points than the old one did, and makes a lot more sense,” says Ross.
Instead of reconnecting with the Sunset Limited’s Los Angeles run (service between L.A. and New Orleans never ceased) an SRC-funded study conducted by Amtrak proposes connecting the Gulf Coast line to Amtrak’s existing City of New Orleans service, which runs from New Orleans to Chicago. Passengers could ride all the way from the Windy City to the line’s termination in Orlando without a transfer.
An alternate proposal recommends running a second daily train between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama. Amtrak estimates these options could attract between 138,000 and 153,900 annual riders, at an annual operating cost between $5.48 million and $9.49 million.
Ultimately exactly what service looks like and how it is funded will be up to the Gulf Coast Rail Service Working Group, recently established by Congress as part of the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act. The group has nine months to develop recommendations, working with the SRC, the Federal Railroad Association, and the states of Mississippi, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida. They held their first meeting this week.
“All four states are dedicated to this project. You’ve got federal officials that are excited and wanting to hear what they can do to support the efforts,” says Joe McAndrew, policy director of Transportation for America, which has served as a policy adviser to the SRC. “You have folks at both ends of the line, from different parties, working in a bipartisan fashion to try to restore service.”
Ross says this issue has support across the political spectrum because of the many ways it will benefit local communities, particular small cities and towns. People in Tallahassee or Pensacola have not only lost rail service, but often they can also no longer fly direct to nearby cities, and get routed through Dallas or Atlanta.
“It’s put a lot of these places at a competitive disadvantage,” says Ross. The train, on the other hand, “opens up a lot of new avenues for tourism and travel that don’t exist right now, that have just gone away over the years” and “deposits people right in the middle of downtowns that are beginning to come back.”
“After Katrina, a tremendous amount of investment has been made in all of these cities,” Ross continues, pointing to Biloxi, Bay St. Louis and Gulfport. “All of these mayors that we talk to recognize that the country is changing as far as what people want, especially what young people want … more urbanized, tighter development that encourages walkability, bikeability.”
If the working group can settle on a sustainable funding strategy, Ross is hopeful service could be restored in the next four years. Today and yesterday, he and dozens of other officials got a preview of the South’s potential future aboard that inspection train. Making whistle stops in Bay St. Louis, Gulfport and Biloxi, the train was greeted in cities with speeches by local leaders and pep rallies and marching bands.
Going forward, Ross says, it’s up to the people to demonstrate their support. “One of the most critical components is for people to let their elected representatives know that they want this and they are interested in it and they will use it,” he says.
Hundreds surrounded the train station in Atmore today to welcome the return of Amtrak's Gulf Coast Liner. pic.twitter.com/MRCkY4D1M5— John McMillan (@JohnMcMillan4) February 18, 2016
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.