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Passenger train talk continues along Gulf Coast

The tracks behind the historic L&N Train Depot in Bay St. Louis could again see passenger rail service if the decision is rendered to resume service, which could happen in 2019 at the earliest. The depot was built about 1928 and served as the centerpiece of the film, “This Property is Condemned” starring Robert Redford and Natalie Wood. The historic L&N Train Depot is designated a “Mississippi Landmark,” and houses the Hancock County Tourism, Bay St Louis Mardi Gras Museum, and Alice Moseley Folk Art Museum.

By CALLIE DANIELS BRYANT

Twelve years after Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf Coast has restored all transportations except a passenger rail system.  Now, the Mississippi Gulf Coast appears ready to welcome a restored passenger rail service that could make stops in Biloxi, Gulfport, Bay St. Louis and Pascagoula.

From 1993 to 2005, the Sunset Limited serviced the Mississippi Coast as part of its route from Los Angeles to New Orleans to Miami. It was suspended in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina hit the coast, but before the storm, the 2,764-mile route faced challenges with on-time performance, often running several hours late. Since then, Amtrak has not yet restored service, but federal and state government officials and local city officials along the route have discussed it.

The earliest possible year is 2019.

Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker has been vocal in federal government on restoring the passenger rail system.

“Restoring passenger rail to the Gulf Coast – after more than 12 years – could open up opportunities for economic growth and job creation,” Wicker said. “In other parts of the country, this particular mode of transportation has been a resource for business and tourism. I believe we can replicate that same success in Mississippi with on-time, profitable passenger rail that works for residents and for taxpayers.”

In 2015, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act, which began action to evaluate and eventually restore the passenger rail system along the Gulf Coast.

The Gulf Coast Working Group (GCWG), created by the Congress as part of Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, spent the past 18 months analyzing the probability of restoring and renovating the passenger rail service.

In July, GCWG submitted its final report to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation of the Senate and Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure of the House of Representatives. The lawmakers are currently reviewing the report in consultation with the Federal Railway Administration and the Southern Rail Commission, and also with Amtrak and CSX.

In the report, GCWG recommends two routes: a daily long-distance route from New Orleans to Orlando and a daily regional route from New Orleans to Mobile to help with daytime congestion on railroads.  This proposal cuts down the number of stops which increases on-time performance that the previous rail system failed on.

Biloxi’s Chief of Civic Innovation and Development, F. Cliff Kirkland, was a part of the GCWG.

“The most obvious benefit is the opportunity to increase tourism across the corridor, especially for Biloxi.” Kirkland said.  “We are predominantly a drive-in market attracting about six million visitors a year. Regularly scheduled and on-time passenger rail service will provide new tourists who prefer traveling by train.”

Although the group does not have a study that projects a precise increase, Kirkland said that everyone agrees that regular, on-time passenger rail service will encourage day trips from the New Orleans and Mobile areas and over time the rail system could have a significant impact on increased tourism.

Other benefits listed in the report include potential reduction of vehicle traffic in cities along the passenger rail, increased access to jobs, education and healthcare along the coast as well as provided support for weather emergencies or natural disasters along the coast.

The Southern Rail Commission has worked with Amtrak, which may operate the passenger rail system if restored, on trial runs and providing statistics.

In a 2015 report which can be found on Commission website, Amtrak said the route from New Orleans to Orlando would have annual ridership of 153,900 passengers while the route from New Orleans to Mobile would generate annual ridership of 138,300 passengers.

The capital cost is anticipated by GCWG as below $112 million plus an estimated $5 million for project development and planning. GCWG included a capital cost of $7.8 million in the total cost for station repair and improvement.

GCWG identified nine sources that could provide funding, proceeds from the 2010 BP oil spill. Federal and state funding are among the nine sources.

“Mississippi will certainly be expected to share in the costs of subsidizing the Amtrak return,” Kirkland said, “and has publicly expressed its willingness to do so. Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama have pledged financial support, and Florida may yet contribute to the annual subsidy cost which is estimated to be nine million.

Although it is not reported what Mississippi’s share in the annual subsidy would be, Kirkland added that Biloxi and other Mississippi cities scheduled to receive service are working with Federal Railroad Administration and Southern Rail Commission to access grants they’ve been awarded with to help with the cost of creating new train platforms.

For example, Biloxi received a grant for $250,000 and has pledged a matching $250,000 to cover the cost of constructing a new platform to the immediate east of Reynoir Street, which will tie it to the existing multi-modern station already in place.  Its sister cities along the track (Gulfport, Bay St. Louis and Pascagoula) all received grants from the Federal Railway Administration too to build new platforms for the Amtrak service.

According to GCWG’s final report, Amtrak doesn’t need all stations to be open before operating.

The largest challenge to passenger rail system: aligning the new routes with the freight traffic on CSX railroad.

“The big issue as yet unresolved is the agreement from track owner CSX to assimilate the Amtrak service into its freight schedule that dominates the region,” Kirkland said.

“The study completed by Work Group outlines ways and means for that assimilation, but the final commitment from CSX is needed before any service could begin.”

CSX had proposed a $2.3 billion, including property acquisition, to improve certain routes on the passenger rail system and to install a second track in Pascagoula Yard, to name a few of its proposed projects.

GCWG states that Amtrak has recognized the need to work with CSX to jointly access the intercity passenger rail service restoration and reach an agreement on the equitable distribution of costs for improvements to increase passenger service operating speed levels. However, Amtrak supports an approach providing improvements in phases after restoring the passenger rail system.

There is work yet to be done, but Amtrak is ready to restore the passenger rail system on the Gulf Coast.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said: “We were honored to be a part of the Southern Rail Commission’s original request in 2015, and we participated in the Gulf Coast Working Group’s report to the Congress which came out in July, and we’re continuing to work with members of the Congress along the route and the Southern Rail Commission to take this from report to reality.

“There’s a distance to be covered from the report to reality but we’re standing to be the Southern Rail Commission’s partner in making this happen. We’re gratified that Congress continues to look into helping with this service.”

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