by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper
Amtrak is planning to test the feasibility of restoring rail service on the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Florida that has been dormant since Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago.
Trains on Amtrak’s Sunset Limited route, which used to run between Los Angeles and Orlando, have ended in New Orleans since the 2005 storm, which wiped out tracks along the Gulf of Mexico.
Amtrak is planning to operate a test train on the route, which includes stops in Alabama and the panhandle of Florida before it heads south to Orlando, to examine the feasibility of restoring the service, the company announced this week. The train will run from New Orleans to Orlando on Feb. 18-19 with Amtrak leaders and elected officials, according to Amtrak officials.
The company said “the goal of the invitation-only trip is to examine the existing CSX railroad infrastructure and to better understand rail’s economic, cultural and mobility opportunities.”
“We want to work with community leaders and CSX,” Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman said in a statement. “Additional regional economic development can come from shared infrastructure investments on a timeline to better connect the region to the rest of the country and more than 500 other Amtrak destinations.”
A recently completed study showed restoring the rail service between Louisiana and Central Florida would attract between 138,300 and 153,900 passengers annually.
The study, conducted by Amtrak for the Southern Rail Commission, also showed it would cost $5.48 million to operate a daily roundtrip train on the shuttered Gulf Coast route if states chip in under a 2008 law that allows Amtrak to contract with local governments to provide increased service on shorter routes.
The cost would rise to $9.49 million if additional service if instituted between New Orleans and Mobile, Ala., under the proposal.
Other options that were studied include operating two daily trips from New Orleans to only Mobile, with bus connections from there to existing Amtrak service in Jacksonville, Fla., and operating the one daily New Orleans-to-Florida trip under Amtrak’s long-distance route structure.
The study said the long-distance proposal would attract 69,100 passengers and cost $14.4 million per year to operate.
Advocates of restoring the dormant Gulf Coast rail service have been hoping to convince Amtrak of the feasibility of the route since a provision authorizing the study was included in a highway funding bill that was passed by Congress last year.
“The Gulf Coast region is home to numerous regional, national and global tourist destinations and events, including New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, the theme parks of central Florida, Gulf Coast beaches and casino gaming/resorts,” the authors of the feasibility study wrote in the begging of their report.
“Major league sports teams, NCAA bowl games, three cruise terminals with weekly mass-market cruise ship departures and convention opportunities also draw visitors to communities in the region, while military bases and major defense contractor facilities bring business and military travelers,” the report continued. “Reintroduction of rail passenger service to this market presents numerous marketing opportunities and Amtrak has the marketing capability to assist in promoting any service which is implemented.”
The 1,995-mile Sunset Limited is one of Amtrak’s national, or long-distance, trains, which have been dubbed money-losers by critics for years. The truncated route between Los Angeles and New Orleans carried 105,000 passengers in the 2014 fiscal year, the lowest total of any long-distance Amtrak service, according to figures released by the company.
Amtrak supporters have defended the losses on national routes such as Sunset Limited by arguing that subsidizing long-distance trains in parts of the country with little air service is a big part of the reason Congress created the company in the first place.