Officials and rail advocates are preparing for the return of rail passenger service along the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Mobile. But the service, which has been suspended since Hurricane Katrina, may not become a reality this year, officials said.
At a meeting of the Southern Rail Commission on Friday, officials said parts are falling together for a new rail line that would run twice-daily between New Orleans and Mobile with four stops along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
However, it has yet to approve about $200 million in federal grants — money needed to upgrade the railroad lines, crossings and stations along the line.
The service could begin before those improvements are complete, but not before the grant money is at least approved, commission chairman Knox Ross said.
The dotted line on the map between Jacksonville and New Orleans shows where Amtrak plans to restore passenger rail service that was suspended since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Amtrak graphic
“We want to start doing this in 2023. We’re hoping to start that in 2023, and Amtrak is doing everything they can,” Ross said. “But there are still some moving parts that need to come together that are beyond our control.”
Meanwhile, another much-anticipated rail passenger project between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is progressing, and supporters of the plan expressed optimism on Friday that the service is closer to reality than it has been at any time in years.
But some hurdles still have to be overcome. Federal funding must be approved for major construction projects along the route, not least a wooden trestle over the Bonnet Carre Spillway.
In addition, federal regulatory and environmental approvals are still required. An update of a 2014 market study that includes a plan for pricing and operations of the project also needs to be completed.
It’s unclear how much of this can be done before Gov. John Bel Edwards, a backer of the project, leaves office at the end of the year.
“That’s one of the reasons we’re trying to get as much done as we can now,” Ross said. “We have a known governor who supports this and we’re trying to get as much done as we can as long as we have people in office who support it.”
gulf coast first
The quarterly meeting of the Southern Rail Commission on Friday comes amid an unprecedented amount of government support for rail projects. President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill marks the largest investment in rail passenger transportation since Amtrak’s inception, with an investment of $66 billion.
In Louisiana, three separate rail passenger projects are hoping to take advantage of federal funding: Gulf Coast service from New Orleans to Mobile; Service between New Orleans and Baton Rouge and service along the I20 corridor from Meridien, Mississippi via multiple stops in northern Louisiana to Dallas.
Of the three, the Gulf Coast project is furthest in the permitting process and most likely to be realized first. In December, Amtrak, CSX Transportation, Norfolk Southern Railway Company and the Port of Mobile entered into an agreement that will allow freight and passenger trains to share tracks on the Gulf Coast Corridor.
This agreement paves the way for the service to begin for the first time since Katrina, when Amtrak discontinued Sunset Limited.
Officials said Friday stations in Mississippi were being prepared, though some of the improvements are temporary. If the $200 million in federal grants are approved, the stations will undergo a more thorough overhaul to bring them up to current standards.
“We know this is going to happen,” said John Robert Smith, SRC policy adviser at Transportation for America. “It’s just a matter of timing.”
Baton Rouge New Orleans
As for the connection between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, the rail line has not been specifically approved and there is no construction schedule yet. But in a significant development last year, Canadian Pacific reached an agreement to acquire Kansas City Southern, which owns the freight rails that would carry the new passenger service.
Unlike KCS, Canadian Pacific supports the new service and has agreed to allow passenger trains to use its rails. Now federal authorities at the Surface Transportation Board must approve the sale of the route. The agency held several hearings in 2022, and a decision could come as soon as this month.
Amtrak sits on the tracks at the New Orleans Union passenger terminal in New Orleans, La., Wednesday, April 20, 2022. Governor John Bel Edwards met with Shawn Wilson, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, and Amit Bose, the Federal Railroad Administrator, as they traveled from Baton Rouge to New Orleans on the passenger train. (Photo by Sophia Germer, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)
Once that happens, the state would need to negotiate a contract with Amtrak to begin service.
Amtrak has previously said it would take about six months to prepare and expand regular daily service once a contract is signed.
However, an environmental impact study currently underway has yet to be completed. In addition, an update of a market study from 2014 is currently in progress. This study is important because it will show ways to preserve the railway line in the long term.
In the short term, federal funding should cover up to 90% of the operating costs in the first six years.
Another major problem to be solved is the replacement of a wooden trestle crossing the Bonnet Carre spillway. Located south of a new railroad bridge, this bridge requires trains to slow to 10 miles per hour.
The state has applied for a federal grant that would cover 80% of the estimated $108 million cost.