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In a scene that must have echoed the first arrival of the Pensacola and Atlantic Railroad more than 130 years ago, Pensacolians cheered and celebrated as well-wishers packed Pensacola’s long-vacant train station.

For the first time in more than a decade, an iconic red, white, and blue striped Amtrak passenger train stopped in Pensacola on Friday on its way across the Gulf Coast. Railroads like the L&N and Frisco lines once connected Gulf Coast towns to the rest of the country via trains like the Gulf Wind and the Sunnyland, but Pensacola hasn’t seen a passenger train since 2005.

For now though, this is a one-way trip.

The purpose of the 550 mile excursion — stretching from New Orleans to Jacksonville — is to survey the CSX-owned rail lines and other infrastructure and to gauge the public interest in restoring passenger rail service along the Gulf Coast and into central Florida.

America’s only transcontinental passenger rail route

The line had previously hosted Amtrak’s Sunset Limited between Los Angeles and Miami — once North America’s only transcontinental route — but after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005, the route was severed.

Ridership

(Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

But even before its ultimate demise, the Gulf Coast route was already on the fast track to failure.

When it begun in 1993, the Sunset Limited had nearly 150,000 riders. The route saw nearly a decade of continuous decreases in ridership, ultimately ending in 2005 with 81,000 riders.

For various reasons, according to Amtrak officials, on-time performance of the Sunset Limited proved to be elusive, hindering the train’s ridership and causing the route to be among the worst performing in the country. Amtrak cites the route’s length — over 2,700 miles — and operating conditions by railroad owners, such as CSX, as the main causes.

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The CSX tracks are seen heavily damaged from the impact of Hurricane Katrina outside New Orleans. (Special to The Pulse)

Trains frequently ran several hours late — some over 24 hours behind schedule. By 2005, Amtrak was busing passengers east of New Orleans on nearly one third of all trips in an effort to keep the Sunset Limited on schedule over the rest of its route.

Restoring the Sunset Limited

The Southern Rail Commission, an organization advocating for the restoration and extension of Gulf Coast passenger rail service, has been lobbying for rail service and in 2015 persuaded Amtrak to commission a feasibility study.

The commission, which brings together local authorities in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, has long been campaigning for enhanced passenger services to connect the cities and towns along the Gulf Coast.

“I’ve made seven trips to the Gulf Coast in just the past 14 months, and every official I met with at every level of government agreed that restoring this service was vital to the South’s economic competitiveness,” said Jim Mathews, President & CEO of National Association of Railroad Passenger. “The consensus was more than bipartisan, it was non-partisan.

This week’s inspection tour — occupied by more than 250 traveling dignitaries, politicians and media — differs from other Amtrak excursions with the addition of an inspection car at the rear of the train. With its rear-facing seats and a large glass window allowing passengers to observe the tracks, the car is used by maintenance crews and Amtrak officials to inspect tracks.

An Amtrak Inspection train arrives in Pensacola, Fla. on February 19, 2016.(Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

An Amtrak Inspection train arrives in Pensacola, Fla. on February 19, 2016.(Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

The intention, according to Amtrak, is both to examine the existing infrastructure and to better understand rail’s potential contribution to economic, cultural and transport developments in the region. On Thursday, the tour departed New Orleans and made stops at Bay St Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi, and Pascagoula in Mississippi; and Mobile and Atmore in Alabama. On Friday, the train departed Pensacola enroute to Crestview, Chipley, Tallahassee, Madison, Lake City and finally, Jacksonville.

This week’s itinerary is meant to reflect the possible stops that a revived route could include.

A recently-completed study, conducted for the commission by Amtrak, indicated that a service along the Gulf Coast could attract up to 150,000 passengers a year and could cost up to $10 million, with several route options presented.

Options that were studied include:

  • The first, referred to as “Alternative A,” includes a long-distance train that starts at Chicago’s Union Station and travels South to New Orleans before heading east along the coast toward Orlando. In addition, a separate state-supported train would travel daily between New Orleans and Mobile, with stops along the Mississippi coast. Amtrak estimates an annual ridership of 153,900 passengers, and annual operational costs of $9.49 million. The daily, state-supported New Orleans-to-Mobile train would depart New Orleans each morning, then return in the afternoon.
  • The second, referred to as “Alternative A1,” is for the state-supported portion only, and leaves out the long-distance trip into Florida. Amtrak estimates an annual ridership of 138,300 passengers, and costs of $5.48 million.

Other options include operating two daily trips between New Orleans and Mobile, with a bus link from there to connect with existing Amtrak service at Jacksonville, or operating a daily New Orleans – Florida trip as an extension of another Amtrak long-distance route.

(Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

A proposed route for the Sunset Limited east of New Orleans. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

A working group, authorized through last year’s $325 billion federal transportation bill, is expected to shed some light on the costs of the service in a review they are supposed to have finished within nine months. The group met for the first time Tuesday in New Orleans, before departing on the inspection tour.

Among the group’s duties: Select a preferred service for a revised Gulf Coast route, identify funding sources and analyze the costs and benefits of restoring passenger rail.

A subsidy worthwhile?

Despite the nostalgic allure of bring back passenger rail service to the Gulf Coast, some lawmakers and local leaders don’t see the benefits outweighing the costs and public subsidies that would be required to reinstate the route.

But some, including Gulf Coast lawmakers, have said rail passengers deserve federal taxpayer support like highways and airports.

“This trip will allow us to better understand the economic, cultural and mobility opportunities that intercity passenger rail provides, said New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu. “It’s a major step forward in returning passenger rail service to the eastern region of the Gulf Coast.”

The former Amtrak station, owned by the City of Pensacola. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

The former Amtrak station, owned by the City of Pensacola. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

CSX says that while they are participating in the inspection train tour, they have stopped short of a full endorsement of reintroducing the passenger route.

To run the service, Amtrak will need to lease the rails from CSX Transportation, which will have to be funded through public sources.

“Re-introducing passenger rail along this line would involve extensive computer-based modeling to assess capacity on this route,” said CSX spokesperson Kristin Seay. “Identification of infrastructure improvements would be needed to support the proposed service, potential additional safety requirements and funding considerations for operating and capital costs.”

If any route options are approved — and funding can be acquired — officials estimate it could take anywhere between two to four years for Amtrak to once again run regular trips along the Gulf Coast.

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