Mississippi cities ready with Amtrak platforms, while key details remain unresolved in Mobile

Published: Aug. 2, 2023 at 6:50 PM CDT
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - There is a stark contrast between Alabama and Mississippi when it comes to readiness for the return of passenger rail service for the first time since Hurricane Katrina.

New train platforms have been completed in Biloxi, Gulfport, Pascagoula and Bay St. Louis. Amtrak signs have been erected. Biloxi’s platform is across from a bus facility, while the other three cities have newly restored train stations.

All that exists in Mobile so far, however, is an old platform from where the station used to be next to the Arthur Outlaw Mobile Convention Center. With key issues remaining unresolved in the Port City, it is unclear whether Amtrak will be able to meet its goal of launching the service by the end of the year.

“We have hope,” said Marc Magliari, a spokesman for Amtrak.

But Knox Ross, chairman of the Southern Rail Commission, said it is likely that the service will not begin until the first quarter of next year.

The commission is contracting with Amtrak to run two trains a day in each direction between Mobile and New Orleans, with stops in the four Mississippi cities. But the ticket prices have not been set yet and Mobile has nothing approaching the stations that other cities have built.

Amtrak plans to pay for upgrades to make the existing platform next to the Convention Center on Water Street compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The city would be responsible for a ticket kiosk and an overhang to shield passengers from the sun and rain while they wait.

Magliari said the temporary station in Mobile is more complicated than other stops on the route because it is the beginning of the line. That means there will need to be a switch and spur where the train will stay overnight when it is not in use.

“We need a place to park the train,” Magliari told FOX10 News.

David Clark, a Southern Rail Commission member from Mobile, said the Mobile City Council will have to put a little more than $3 million into the project. He said a Restoration and Enhancement grant, which will make up the shortfall between ticket sales and operational costs, will allow that expenditure to be spread out over six years.

“You know, timing is hard,” he said. “What I do know is that CSX right now is approving or looking at the design of the platform that Amtrak’s throwing out there”

CSX will build the track for the branch line, but it is contingent on Amtrak acquiring the land from the city. Those negotiations are ongoing.

“We’re talking to the city, and things are going well,” Magliari said.

Added city spokeswoman Candace Cooksey in a statement: “We are making good progress but have not finalized the terms. Any and all arrangements and future construction or real estate actions would require the approval of the City Council.”

From the time an agreement is reached, Clark said, it will take four months to build the temporary station

“It has to happen pretty soon,” he said. “And I think the thing is, once everyone agrees, it’s starting four months – you’ll be going to New Orleans from here.”

Technically, a challenge to passenger rail filed by two freight railroads and the Alabama State Port Authority remains pending before the Surface Transportation Board, although the parties reached to a conditional agreement last year. The companies were concerned because passenger trains will have to share the same track with 33 freight trains that roll through Mobile every 24 hours.

Clark says he is bullish on the future, even if key details – like the cost of the tickets – remains up in the air. He said the train will be “affordable and fun” for passengers. He said it has a potential to boost tourism in Mobile, with “people coming into our city every day, potentially – staying in our hotels, eating at our restaurants, going to our attractions and seeing all the unique things Mobile has to offer.”

Clark has a unique perspective because he is not just a Southern Rail Commission member. He is also president and CEO of Visit Mobile.

Even though a date has not been set for the service to begin, Clark said he has had marketing meetings with his colleagues on the Southern Rail Commission and other tourism bureaus about how best to get the word out – things like the best social media posts to take advantage of search algorithms.

Clark said he hopes the train is running by February so he can use it to show off Mobile’s Mardi Gras to foreign writers and travel agents who are coming to New Orleans.

“We have our state Department of Tourism that is all in on this,” he said. “And they want to help. In fact, if we can get there, we have a familiarization trip, 32 people coming in from the United Kingdom, flying into New Orleans to want to come over here and check out our Mardi Gras. Those are the kind of things that are happening all the time.”

The Southern Rail Commission next meets Sept. 8 in Baldwin County.

“We’re working on the train name,” he said. “You know, I think there could be an announcement at that ... meeting, what that name is.”

Updated on Aug. 3, 2023, to correct an error about the status of train stations in Pascagoula, Bay St. Louis and Gulfport. They have been restored, not newly built.