Amtrak, freight railroads reach agreement to return passenger trains to Gulf Coast

Published: Nov. 22, 2022 at 10:55 AM CST|Updated: Nov. 22, 2022 at 5:30 PM CST
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - Amtrak, the CSX and Norfolk Southern freight railroads and the Alabama State Port Authority have reached a “conditional” agreement that will allow passenger rail service to return to the region, according to a joint announcement by the parties.

The parties have been at odds over Amtrak’s plan to return passenger service from New Orleans to Mobile, with stops in Mississippi. Amtrak service along the Gulf Coast east of New Orleans ended in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina damaged tracks.

The tracks are owned by the freight railroads.

Mobile has been without passenger rail service since Hurricane Katrina, but supporters have been pushing hard for its return. The Mobile City Council in 2020 passed a resolution supporting Amtrak’s bid and pledged to back it with city funds.

The major obstacle has been concerns by freight rail and the business interests they serve.

Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson repeatedly has spoken of the risk of disputing operations at the port. But the joint agreement announced Tuesday clears the way for Amtrak to run trains between Mobile and New Orleans, with stops in Mississippi.

But Stimpson expressed cautious optimism.

“The City has always supported Amtrak resuming service in Mobile, provided that it wouldn’t negatively impact the cargo freight operations coming into and out of the Port of Mobile,” he said in a prepared statement. “We look forward to hearing more details about the proposed settlement in the near future.”

For now, the parties are mum on the details.

David Clark, Mobile’s top tourism official and a member of the Southern Rail Commission, also welcomed the news. He cited a University of Southern Mississippi study suggesting Amtrak could bring 16,000 people a year to Mobile.

“Anytime we can have 16,000 more people coming to our city, it makes a difference. … It’s a new attraction,” he said. “It’s a new opportunity, and it’s really a new kind of opportunity for that connection piece and having even more cultural in a different way for transportation and to, you know, connect to different communities.”

Folks downtown on Tuesday said they were excited, or at least intrigued, by the prospect of being able to take a train trip to Mississippi casinos or the French Quarter in New Orleans.

“I think it’s a convenient, easy way to travel,” said Mobile resident Beth Morrissette. “It lessens the footprint, I think, that we leave on the world as a whole. Public transportation is fantastic. So it’s nice that it’s an option in Mobile differently than it than it was before.”

Baldwin County residents David and Kim Zimmerman said they are eager to try it.

“I think it’d be fun, at least here to Biloxi or here to New Orleans,” David Zimmerman said. “That way I don’t have to drive.”

Added his wife: “Right, and then you don’t have to fight the traffic. Let the train fight it.”

Visitors arriving by rail – regardless of the actual number – will pale in comparison to people who drive. But Clark, the president and CEO of Visit Mobile, said adding trains will strengthen ties along the Gulf Coast.

“From a regional approach, it always is a regional win, too, right?” he said. “That’s how we’re stronger as community, is regionally, even beyond our city of Mobile.”

The Surface Transportation Board had been scheduled to hear arguments in this case next week and vote on Amtrak’s application on Dec. 7. Those dates now will be put off. If for some reason the settlement falls through, the case would be reinstated.

Updated at 5:38 p.m. with additional information.


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