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Gaining 'track'tion

Coast residents advocate resumption of Amtrak passenger rail service

 

Pass Christian resident Keith Voigts, who operates the R&D business Wiseman Technologies Inc. in Biloxi, doesn’t go around with a rail engineer’s cap on. But he and his wife, Gwenn, are big supporters of rail transportation.

The Voigts have joined with other concerned citizens on the Mississippi Gulf Coast to advocate that Amtrak restore passenger train services between the Coast and New Orleans. Previous service that was part of the Sunset Limited train running from Florida to Los Angeles was stopped after Hurricane Katrina, and has never resumed.

“We had a train here until Katrina,” Voigts said. “It was a good connection with New Orleans, an alternative to heavy traffic on the highway to commute into New Orleans. It was also a way to access the outside world with rail travel. Usually my wife and I do one rail trip a year. We really enjoy it.”

The Coast group is working to get local support to reinstate the train service. Voigts said without local support, he doesn’t think anything will be done.

“We would like to see the ability to go back and forth to New Orleans by rail, and then have rail access to the outside world,” Voigts said. “We can drive to Picayune, get on a train, go to Meridian and on to Atlanta, Washington and New York. That is pretty nice. But it would be nice to link it all the way into New Orleans.” 

He often has to go into New Orleans for business, and finds the commute scary at times. Traffic is heavy, and he notes a lot of the commuters are from Mississippi.

“It is amazing the number of Mississippi license plates going into New Orleans, and then coming back home at night,” he said. “I really would prefer to travel by rail. For the most part, all things being equal, I would rather ride a train than drive. Obviously, if you need to get somewhere far fast, air is the best option. Otherwise, traveling by rail is quite delightful.”

Voigts said some options being discussed include a high-speed rail corridor along the Gulf Coast as well as magnetic levitation rail. He doesn’t care which option is used.

“All I know is we would like to have some rail service established,” Voigts said. “We are trying to get local support. Without local support from the cities and towns around the route, I don’t think anything will be done. We are working on getting resolutions from cities and counties. They are favorable. We have had nothing but positive expressions from local politicians. Where it stops, you have to have depots. Obviously, there would have to be money put into it. I think Amtrak would like to see the local governments behind it.”

John Robert Smith, the former mayor of Meridian who is president and CEO of Reconnecting America (www.reconnectingamerica.org), said his organization supports the reinstitution of the Sunset Limited service.

“Amtrak has prepared several scenarios that would be possible to re-institute the Sunset Limited,” Smith said. “We want to make sure that the Sunset service is reliable, on time and has daily service. It appears the best option is a trip from New Orleans headed east as a separate segment. But it could also connect to the City of New Orleans train or to the Crescent train, both of which come into New Orleans. While they would not run as one train, you could make a trip into New Orleans on either of the other two trains, and then connect to the Sunset along the Coast.”

Previously the Sunset Limited stopped on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the middle of the night. Smith said this go around, it would be helpful if the hours of service make sense for Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coastal cities. 

“If the train is not running at times people want to use service, and on-time performance is poor, and there is less than weekly service, we won’t have successful route,” Smith said. “But what Amtrak has put together accomplishes those goals of high probability of on-time performance, reasonably attractive hours or service, and daily service.”

But the first barrier is money. Amtrak is seeking the three states served to support the estimated shortfall in operations between expense and revenue. 

Todd Stennis, director of government affairs, Amtrak, said Amtrak recently submitted a $1-million report to the U.S. Congress on restoring the Sunset Limited train service.

“There are three plans,” Stennis said. “One is to restore the Sunset Limited between Los Angeles and Orlando, Fla., one is to extend the existing City of New Orleans train from Chicago to New Orleans east to Orlando, and the last is a standalone service. The key is there is presently there is no funding in Amtrak’s budget for this, and funds would have to be created for those trains. That is up to Congress to do.”

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