The return of passenger rail service to the Gulf Coast appears to be getting some mixed signals among the agencies and groups studying the matter.
Congress on Monday received the final report by the Federal Rail Commission’s Gulf Coast Passenger Rail Working Group, which is said to provide a positive endorsement of the Southern Rail Commission’s long standing call for restoration.
The next step, says Southern Rail Commission Chairman Greg White, is how to pay for it.
“As you read through the reports you’ll see that there are capital improvements that are needed,” said White. “You’ll also see that there are some needs for year-to-year operational costs. So we will now begin to look for those sources of funding, private or public.”
The report details anticipated capital costs of less than $112 million, plus an estimated five million dollars for project development and planning.
Damage to tracks by Katrina brought to a stop Amtrak’s Sunset Limited, whose route included Jacksonville west to Pensacola and New Orleans.
“Since that time, when the train ran pre-Katrina, there have been several issues and laws and letters written expressing on-time performance,” said David Dech, assistant vice president for passenger operations at CSX Railroad.
In a recent letter to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Dech said resurrecting the service is not workable, because of federal on-time standards passed since then. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Sunset Limited ran on schedule only seven percent of the time in the year leading up to Katrina.
“Congress has made it clear that their intent is for an 80 percent on-time performance,” Dech said. “Which is pretty high performance as far as passenger trains go, [but] not unattainable in certain locations. But this is a particularly difficult location, because of some of the variables that are there.”
Those “variables” include 17 moveable draw bridges along the route, which are controlled by the Coast Guard. Add to that about 150 freight customers from New Orleans to Mobile, which are served daily by at least a dozen freight trains.
“As you can imagine, if you interject two, seven-day-a-week passenger trains that have to get preference over those freight trains by statute, you can really affect that traffic,” Dech says.
The report offers a pair of daily options for passenger service: a commuter train between New Orleans and Mobile; and a long-distance route between Orlando and New Orleans. The SRC’s Greg White says Pensacola would be served by the latter.
“The stops are the old stops from the Sunset Limited, at least initially,” White said. “There will be opportunity as things progress to consider other needs.”
The original time frame for getting the Sunset Limited up and running again was sometime in 2020. White says there’s no reason to believe that it won’t happen.