Amtrak plans service to Mobile starting next year
MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - Amtrak plans to start its long-awaited service between here and New Orleans next year, but key details – including cost – are still to be worked out.
Last month, Amtrak reached a settlement with the Port of Mobile, Norfolk Southern and CSX. The terms of that settlement are confidential until the Surface Transportation Board approves it. But if it does, as expected, it will pave the way for passenger rail service in Mobile for the first time since 2005.
“This is a big deal,” Southern Rail Commission Chairman Knox Ross said during a meeting of the organization in Mobile on Friday. “We’ve been working to get this service, really since 2005.”
The line would be part of Amtrak’s state-supported rail network. The commission, made up of representatives from Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, would contract with Amtrak to provide two trains a day from Mobile to New Orleans, with stops in four Mississippi cities in between. Two trains also would run from New Orleans to Mobile.
Because it is a state-supported line, Amtrack spokesman Marc Magliari said, the company does not set the fare. That would be determined based on how much money the commission and the states that support it put into the enterprise.
“Some states, some regions, have a philosophy that charge as much as you can so that cost locally is as low as it can be,” he said. “Other states have a philosophy that say, “Make it as cheap as possible for as many people on the train as possible.”
Ross, a commission member from Mississippi, told reporters that the total trip from Mobile to New Orleans, including stops, will be three hours and 23 minutes. He said it is premature to say what the price would be. But he pointed to Amtrak service between Chicago and Milwaukee, which is about $25 one way.
“It would be very reasonable,” he said. “And like, if you go from here to New Orleans, it would be much cheaper than driving over there and parking your car.”
For much of the route between Mobile and New Orleans, there is just a single track that trains must share, requiring one train to pull off on to sidings until the other train passes. That prompted concern among the port and the freight trains that serve it.
Ross said the railroad business has changed dramatically since he 19th century and even in the past two decades. Freight trains running two miles long are using sidings built for trains half that size, he said.
In working to restoring passenger service, Mississippi is much further along that Alabama. Its four temporary stations are nearly finished. Magliari said Amtrak plans to cover the cost of setting up a temporary station in Mobile, most likely next to the Arthur R. Outlaw Mobile Convention Center downtown, where the old Amtrak station used to be.
“It would be a fairly quick project in Mobile. … There’s an existing platform,” he said.
It could take several years to plan and build a permanent station, compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. That station could either be at the Water Street location next to the convection center or, as some city leaders have suggested, at the new Mobile International Airport that is coming together at the Brookley Aeroplex.
Magliari said it is possible to have stations at both locations.
“For example, in Milwaukee, we go downtown, but on our way to and from downtown, we stop at the Milwaukee airport,” he said. “We do that 14 times a day. So bringing people to airports by rail is not a new idea.”
On Friday, commissioners heard about opportunities for federal grants. The commission previously received a $33 million Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements grant. The commission this month applied for a different so-called CRISI grant with more favorable terms requiring only a 20 percent local match.
Commission members also noted that Congress has made a major commitment to expanding train service. Magliari told the commission that Amtrak is eager “to fill a huge gap in the Amtrak map” that was designed in 1970.
Ross said he hopes the settlement reached last month leads to similar agreements elsewhere. Long-term plans call for extending service to Baton Rouge, Louisiana and across the Florida Panhandle.
“This isn’t just lines on a map,” Magliari said. “This has a chance to become a real thing.”
Proponents contend that the new Amtrak service will not merely restore what existed prior to Hurricane Katrina. Ross said the service will be more convenient that the middle-of-the-night arrivals and departures of the previous iterations.
“We’re gonna have two round trips today,” he said. “It’s gonna be really, morning and afternoon. It’s gonna be something that Mobile has not seen in 50 years.”
Added John Spann, a commission member from Louisiana: “We’re about to see something really exciting and deliver something that’s better than we had before.”
David Clark, a rail commission member from Alabama who also serves as president and CEO of Visit Mobile, said he is confident the new service will be more convenient than it was in its earlier iteration.
“The good news is, is that I know we’ll have better runtimes with the train, better access and, you know, it’s gonna be, really, a multicultural kind of thing,” he said.
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