Is The Gulf Coast Closer To Getting Back Amtrak?

Nov 29, 2016

The "Inspection Train" that made stops in Pensacola and elsewhere in the Florida Panhandle in February, 2016.
Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media

Almost a year after a rally in Pensacola, a resumption of passenger rail service along the Gulf Coast remains on the table, with some progress reported.

Amtrak’s “Inspection Train” pulled into the Pensacola depot last February, originating from New Orleans with stops along the Panhandle before ending in Jacksonville. Along with a host of VIPs, officials with Amtrak and CSX were aboard, checking both the infrastructure and the public’s desire to resume service which was ended by Hurricane Katrina 11 years ago.

“If nothing else, it showed there’s a lot of grassroots interest and support in passenger rail on the Gulf Coast,” said Greg White, Chairman of the Southern Rail Commission. The same week as the inspection train, they kicked off the Gulf Coast Working Group as mandated by Congress.

The group, representing Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, has been meeting each month since, and has received studies from Amtrak and CSX on infrastructure needs. But in all candor, White says the CSX study appears to be “excessive.”

“Some of the things that they included in their modeling were a growth factor for the next 25 years and what traffic on the route would look like then,” White said. “With the suggestion that we build today for what that may be. And I’m not sure that any of us can see our way clearly to do that.”

Besides Amtrak and CSX, other stakeholders along the Gulf Coast include the Federal Railroad Administration and West Florida Regional Planning Council, where Vikki Garrett is a transportation planner. A cost estimate for the upgrades is not yet available, but she says the estimate will cover a large portion of the Florida Panhandle.

“We do not have signalization through much of the Panhandle, as well as the train control measures,” Garrett said. “With the expressed support of the return of passenger rail service, we would hope to be able to find some funding for those necessary improvements.”

Pensacola’s depot, tracks and other infrastructure were not touched by Katrina. Garrett says that, along with the city’s 457-year history, are the city’s two major advantages.

“All across the Gulf Coast a lot of the existing depots and infrastructure, at a minimum, will help us get the service back up and running,” said Garrett. “And I think once that happens, you’re going to find the cities investing more with upgrades to their train depots, and of course the economic development.”

The project does have a friend in court, so to speak. Bill Nelson, Florida’s senior U.S. Senator, is a ranking member of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. It will review the final report from the Gulf Coast Rail Service Working Group.