Amtrak service likely will not return to Mobile until well into 2024, officials say

Published: Sep. 8, 2023 at 12:29 PM CDT
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - At one time, Amtrak hoped to begin service along the Gulf Coast by the end of this year. Now, it appears that will not happen until well into 2024.

The Southern Rail Commission, which is sponsoring the Amtrak line, continues to work on funding and securing agreements to build a platform and overlay track in Mobile.

“This has been a long time coming,” Arun Rao, Amtrak’s director of network development, said at a Friday meeting of the Southern Rail Commission in Point Clear.

He added that the train company is “champing at the bit” to start service “as soon as possible.”

Amtrak representatives said key details of the service, including schedules and ticket fares, would be announced 90 days before service begins between Mobile and New Orleans.

Before then, though, several obstacles must be overcome. The Southern Rail Commission is waiting for a $223 federal grant to pay for upgrades to the track between Mobile and New Orleans. Another crucial requirement is a ground lease with the Mobile to use part of a city-owned parking lot near the Arthur R. Outlaw Mobile Convention Center for an overlay track where the train would rest overnight.

After that, a new train platform that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act needs to be built at the site of the existing platform that Amtrak used prior to Hurricane Katrina.

“Every one of these needs to be in place before we can move forward,” said Knox Ross, the chairman of the commission.

Added Ben Dodson, Amtrak’s project manager for network development: “We are on the very last step. … I just want to reiterate how close we are.”

Ross said negotiators are trying to come up with a design that will take as little of the Mobile parking lot as possible. CSX would build the track with a federal grant.

Although Mobile is the only one of the six cities along the planned route that is not ready with a station, he sought to tamp down the suggestion that the Port City is holding up the process.

“There’s no party holding this back,” he said.

Negotiations between Mobile and Amtrak for the ground lease have been going on for months, but Ross told reporters he is confident it will get done.

“We want to get the terminal situation in Mobile right,” he said. “And if it takes us a little bit longer to do that, that’s fine to make sure we’ve got a fluid railroad, not only for the freight traffic but for the passenger traffic, as well.”

Candace Cooksey, a spokeswoman for Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson, echoed that.

“I don’t know that there’s necessarily a big holdup,” she told FOX10 News. “Certainly, it’s an important piece of property in our downtown riverfront area, important to the citizens of Mobile, important to our future development plans. And we want to make sure that the new station platform will seamlessly work with all of the other opportunities that we have downtown.”

Any agreement would have to be approved by the Mobile City Council. Some council members have expressed opposition to taxpayer-subsidized passenger rail service. Ross said he is confident the council ultimately will approve it.

“We know the mayor’s supportive of it,” he said. “And, you know, we’ve talked to City Council about it. I mean, I think it’s something that’s gonna be very beneficial for the city of Mobile.”

Federal grand money is available for Mobile to build a station, rather than just use a platform. That would pay 80 percent of the construction costs. Cooksey was noncommittal about whether Mobile would pursue that.

“The first step is getting through this agreement with Amtrak and getting the platform operational,” she said. “And as we work on the other pieces of riverfront development, then we’ll see what’s in the future.”

Ross assured people at Friday’s meeting that the pieces are coming together.

“We just ask that you be patient with us. … It will be worth it; I promise,” he said.