By BECKY GILLETTE
The announcement that Amtrak will add a flag stop at Marks in the heart of the Delta is already generating quite a buzz in the Delta and beyond. Marks Mayor Joe Shegog recently did an interview with CNN about the stop in the middle of the Delta for people to hop off to visit Blues Trail sites and other attractions in the area.
According to Quitman County officials, in addition to enhancing tourism visits, the stop would provide an essential transportation service for about 200,000 residents living in nine counties in the north Delta.
“We have been working on this for more than 20 years,” Shegog said. “Many years ago, maybe 50 or 60 years ago, we had a passenger train stop here. I think what it will do is attract more tourists to the Delta. We will have the only Amtrak train stop between Memphis and Greenwood. We have some big plans to do what we can with what we have.”
Marks, population 1,551, is the county seat of Quitman County. It is about 70 miles from Memphis, and 60 miles from Greenwood. Greenwood is currently the only Mississippi Delta town with an Amtrak stop.
The city of Marks and Quitman County are working together on the project which involves building a covered train station depot. Late spring 2016 is the estimated completion date for the project. Shegog expects Amtrak to have a booth set up at the upcoming Mule Train and Blues Festival in Marks Oct. 3.
The city of New Orleans train runs between Chicago and New Orleans. In addition to allowing tourists to get off in the heart of the Delta, it will allow area residents to travel to major hubs like Chicago and New Orleans where the train connects to other routes across the country.
Chip Morgan, executive vice president of the Delta Council, recalls that when he was a child growing up and later attending college in Oxford, his family would catch the train to go to New Orleans, Chicago, or St. Louis, to attend professional baseball games and other events.
“This opens the Delta to a different group of people, including those who might fly into Memphis, Chicago or St. Louis planning a trip through the Blues Trail,” Morgan said. “There will be countless opportunities for those communities along the line now begin marketing different opportunities including Blues Trail attractions. I congratulate the persistence of the Delta officials. It is not an easy thing to get one of the major railroads, Canadian National Railway, a private firm, to designate a flag stop they don’t already have because it interrupts their schedules. It has been a long effort, the railroad and community have come together, and the community put resources forth to make it a pleasant stop that, hopefully, we will be able to sustain.”
Morgan also credited the influence of U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, who serves on the Senate Committee on Commerce Science and Transportation, and participated in meetings to facilitate the establishment of a new, permanent stop in the Mississippi Delta.
Wicker said in a news release that the decision to create the flag stop was reached after talks among Amtrak, the CN Railway and local and state officials. Wicker said the passenger rail service would be beneficial on a number of different levels.
“This is a big win for the Delta and for Mississippi,” Wicker said. “Providing rail service to this part of the state will help boost economic development and tourism opportunities, while delivering an alternative means of transportation for tens of thousands of Mississippians. I commend local city and county leaders, Amtrak officials, and CN Railway personnel for their hard work and persistence in reaching this agreement.”
An Amtrak flag stop overview prepared by Quitman County and Marks officials said that the flag stop will give Amtrak the opportunity to provide an affordable option of transportation to the region and give CN a chance to substantiate its commitment to helping build stronger communities.
“This is the optimal time for this partnership, in that Mississippi is considered a key state for retirement, as a large number of retirees (baby boomers) are attracted to the warmer climate, lower housing cost, and less densely populated communities,” the overview said. “Travel and tourism is the third largest retail industry in the U.S. contributing approximately $600 billion to the U.S. economy. More importantly, the Amtrak’s flag stop in this region will help improve the quality of life and build community and regional pride. Thus the City of Marks, Quitman County and the entire North Delta Region are excited … and our shovels are ready to break ground and be a part of an amazing journey and partnership.”
The overview concludes that Amtrak’s passenger service not only moves people, but also helps move the nation’s economy forward positioning the region for unforeseen economic growth. The demand for passenger rail has been growing dramatically for years. Amtrak carried an estimated 32 million riders thus past year, setting its tenth ridership record in 11 years.
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