The rail service was halted in 2005 due to damage from Hurricane Katrina. Efforts to reinstate it have slowed over the years despite strong federal support.
A recent letter from the CEO’s of Amtrack, CSX Transportation, Norfolk Southern, and the Alabama State Port Authority to the Surface Transportation Board is giving renewed positivity to the efforts of rail access on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
The letter said that there has been substantial progress toward an agreement to restore passenger rail service between New Orleans, Louisiana and Mobile, Alabama.
Residents of the area have been without rail service for more than 17 years. Rail service was halted after the impact of Hurricane Katrina which severely damaged the route.
A progress report is expected by November 21.
“I am glad the CEOs feel that negotiations are progressing and an agreement is in sight,” Wicker said. “After more than 17 years, residents along the Mississippi Gulf Coast deserve to have Amtrak service restored as soon as possible. I appreciate the time invested by the Surface Transportation Board to keep this matter a priority, and I remain hopeful that Amtrak, CSX, Norfolk Southern, and the Port of Mobile will use this second mediation period granted by the Board to resolve this matter.”
Efforts by Wicker and other U.S. Senators to restore rail service to the Gulf Coast have been going on since at least 2015. Original efforts included rail service from New Orleans to Orlando, Florida.
Federal dollars first began to flow for the passenger rail efforts in 2016, when $1.15 million was sent to Mississippi Gulf Coast cities to help prepare for passenger rail service. The money was awarded to Bay St. Louis, Biloxi, Gulfport and Pascagoula. The funds have been used for station-area planning and construction in hopes of restoring passenger rail service.
Unfortunately, things stalled in 2017 and 2018 as rail companies and federal regulators continued to design, test, and implement rail systems needed, known as Positive Train Control (PTC). Hearings were then held consisting of lawmakers and Amtrak executives.
“I understand that testimony has not been particularly encouraging about our collective ability to have this requirement fulfilled by the end of the year,” Wicker said. “The chairman and ranking member’s statements indicate that, on behalf of the Congress, they’re trying to say that patience is running out.”
At the time, Richard Anderson, President and CEO of Amtrak, told those at the hearing that while efforts are progressing for coastal rail lines, some operators, including CSX, are not finished with the work. He indicated that they believed well-run service between New Orleans and Mobile would likely be successful but there have been challenges.
Anderson said one of the primary concerns has been enforcing existing regulations pertaining to rail traffic preference and incremental cost rights, which help trains arrive on time and at reasonable rates.
“The law is there, but since 1971, but there has never been any effective enforcement over the preference action,” Anderson said. “That’s why the long-distance service at Amtrak runs at massive delays.”
In the summer of 2019, an additional $33 million from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) was awarded to fund major infrastructure and capacity improvements to restore the Gulf rail service. This amount was half of the estimated $65.9 million project. Another $5.45 million came in the form of a federal grant in 2020. These dollars will be combined with money from Louisiana, Mississippi and the City of Mobile to operate the program.
In March 2021, Amtrak filed a petition before the Southern Transportation Board to reinstate passenger rail service on the Gulf Coast, throwing their full support behind the effort.
Over the last year, Amtrak has sought to require CSX Transportation Inc. and Norfolk Southern Railroad to allow additional intercity passenger trains, consisting of two roundtrips per day, over the companies’ rail lines between New Orleans and Mobile.
Since then, although planning has continued to reinstate the rail lines, no passenger trains have yet to run as the players have yet to resolve outstanding issues.