MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST — Mayors and other officials from Florida to Louisiana will be in Alabama this week for a conference to discuss restoring passenger train service in the region.
The service from Jacksonville, Fla., to New Orleans was at one time part of Amtrak’s Sunset Limited line from Los Angeles to Jacksonville. It was discontinued after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 wreaked havoc in the area, destroying lives and damaging homes, businesses and railroad tracks.
Officials believe reviving the train service would be a boost to tourism and would help the economies of communities across the Gulf Coast still recovering from Katrina.
Mobile Mayor Sam Jones said restoring the Jacksonville-to-New Orleans line would give Gulf Coast residents a transportation option that hasn’t existed in seven years.
Jones said it’s an important issue in Mobile, Ala., where the primary transportation options since Katrina have been automobiles and plane, both of which he described as “too costly.”
He said the meeting would allow mayors and other officials to decide “the best approach to get the service started again.” He said the regional line would open the region to train service across the country and make attractions like beaches and casinos more accessible. And Jones hopes any new line would be more convenient than the one that ran through Mobile seven years ago — it rolled through the city at 3 a.m., he said.
The closure of the Sunset Limited line has affected some 13 communities where the train stopped and passengers could get on or off.
A spokesman for Amtrak, Marc Magliari, said the Sunset Limited line has not run east of New Orleans since Katrina.
Frank Corder, a city council member in one of those cities — Pascagoula — will be attending Thursday’s conference. He said restarting the train service would boost tourism.
“The entire Gulf Coast is focusing more and more on tourism. Providing an additional access point just makes sense. Adding access to Gulfport, Mobile and New Orleans, where major air connections are located, would definitely enhance tourism all along the Coast,” Corder said.
Corder also said train service would reduce transportation costs for area businesses and ease traffic on heavily traveled highways such as Interstate 10 and U.S. 90.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has been a proponent of restarting the rail service and will be represented at the conference by Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant, who said he hopes daily service can be opened. In addition to helping businesses, the train service would be like some of the commuter lines that operate in the northeast and other parts of the country. He said it would make it easier for someone to live in Biloxi, Miss., or in another Gulf Coast city and work in New Orleans.
He is hopeful Amtrak officials “will look at the demographics and realize there truly is a market here” for the rail line.
The Florida capital of Tallahassee was once a stop on the line, and that city will have several representatives at the conference as well.
Max Stout, who works in the mayor’s office for special projects, said there has been a grassroots effort in Tallahassee to restart the train service.
“The citizens are telling us they want an affordable transportation alternative,” Stout said.
Such a line could help revive a tradition from the 1920s and 1930s in the north Florida college town, when trains were used to take college football fans to games around the country.
“Trains kind of make sense these days,” Stout said.