MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Plans continue to develop in order to bring a new passenger train network to Alabama.
Now, the developer on the project is shedding new light on their timeline and their efforts to set up a headquarters office in Montgomery.
Alabama has been seeking more passenger train service for years. But who should provide it? Amtrak or a private company?
Corridor Capital, a passenger train development company out of Chicago, says a public private-partnership is the key to success in introducing new state rail corridor routes.
They've approached Alabama with an offer to create a fleet of passenger trains (daytime coach and business-class trains with on-board cafe service), offering multiple daily departures along the Decatur-Birmingham-Montgomery-Mobile corridor; what the company calls Alabama's "central spine."
Corridor Capital Chairman James Coston says the company has more than 50 indestructible double-deck "Hi-Level" coaches that are engineered to go 110 miles per hour and can be stripped out and rebuilt to contemporary corridor-train specifications and sold or leased to Alabama for operation.
The Southern Rail Commission (SRC), a Gulf Coast rail organization working with state and federal partners to advance passenger rail serve in the South, has distanced itself from the project.
Chairman Greg White says the SRC had one ten-minute presentation at a public meeting last year from Corridor Capital. No action was taken following their presentation. The SRC has not had any conversations or negotiations with them since that time.
White says the commission is focused on other projects.
"Southern Rail Commission has been working diligently the last 36 or so months and we've made great progress working with the Federal Railroad Administration, with Amtrak and with freight rail providers, CSX in particular, to return passenger rail service to the Gulf Coast, from New Orleans east to Orlando, which was formally known as the Sunset Limited," he said.
The commission is also interested in providing passenger rail service for Baton Rouge to New Orleans along the I-20 corridor from Dallas-Fort Worth to Jackson, Mississippi.
The SRC is also working to enhance the existing Crescent Service, which serves North Alabama (Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Anniston as it runs from New Orleans to New York City).
An additional priority the commission has established is service to Mobile from Birmingham, White said.
An effort is underway right now called the Gulf Coast Working Group, which has brought together members of the Southern Rail Commission, representatives from CSX, the Federal Railroad Administration and local leaders to determine the capacity on the Gulf Coast line as well as infrastructure needs and necessary safety improvements to accommodate a 79 mph passenger train.
The SRC says it's a transportation project, as well as an economic development project.
Sara Feinberg, the administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, and the governor of Mississippi, plans to host an upcoming meeting of other Southern governors to bring them up to speed on passenger rail service in the Southeast.
A recent inspection train the SRC and Amtrak ran on the Gulf Coast showed a great deal of grassroots interest, White said.
"That's what we're trying to build off of, that excitement and support," White added. "We're just convinced that over the next 12 to 18 months, we will see great progress made in returning passenger rail to our region of the country. We encourage folks to express that support when they have the opportunity."
He stressed that the SRC supports any efforts to expand passenger rail service in the region, since that is in line with their mission.
"If Corridor Capital can accomplish that, then we wish them the very best and would love to see that service come to the state of Alabama but right now, our priorities are in other areas," he said.
James Coston says a date has not yet been finalized for opening Corridor Capital's Montgomery office, but he expects it to be soon as the company continues evaluating space and location requirements.
He released an official statement outlining the timeline for the project:
Since freight rail companies own and control the railroad lines, any passenger service, change of frequency or change of times must be coordinated with the freight railroads.
Laura Phelps, a CSX spokeswoman says CSX has not been approached by, nor are they in discussions with, Corridor Capital about new passenger service in Alabama.
"Currently there is only one new passenger route in Alabama that is part of a feasibility study – the previous Amtrak Sunset Limited line between New Orleans and Orlando via Mobile. CSX is participating in that process with the Southern Rail Commission to explore potential passenger rail service options on CSX's Gulf Coast rail line," Phelps said.
Amtrak last operated trains between Birmingham and Mobile via Montgomery with a train called the Gulf Breeze. It operated as a section of the New Orleans-Birmingham-New York Crescent.
When Amtrak reduced service frequency from daily to three-days-weekly between New Orleans and Atlanta in 1995, the state of Alabama discontinued its contract for the service, effective April 1 of that year. Although Amtrak restored daily service across the full Crescent route in 1996, the Gulf Breeze did not return.
Huntsville lost its passenger service well before Congress created Amtrak in 1970 and the rails there generally have an east-west orientation, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari explained.
He stressed that Amtrak has worked closely with the Southern Rail Commission, which includes Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
He also mentioned the special train that was operated earlier this year with the SRC and included stops in Mobile and Atmore, drawing thousands of supporters. It offered participants, which included local, state and federal officials, perspective on the opportunity of intercity passenger rail along the Gulf Coast.
As for Corridor Capital, Coston stressed the company's ongoing efforts to develop a public-private partnership to develop a state rail corridor network with multiple frequencies, scheduled at convenient times for the market. He added that the clock starts ticking on the 18 month time frame only after all parties have agreed to the project and contracts are in place.
In 2014, Corridor Capital was initially awarded by Indiana's DOT to takeover Amtrak's Hoosier State line between Indianapolis and Chicago, but the award was withdrawn and the DOT ended contract negotiations with them to provide passenger rail cars.