BILOXI -- Five weeks ago an Amtrak inspection train rolled across South Mississippi for the first time since Hurricane Katrina, and on Wednesday officials met in Biloxi to move along the dream of restoring passenger rail service across the Gulf Coast.
Mark Murphy, general manager of long distance service for Amtrak, was aboard the inspection train and said, "It was terrific. The thing that impressed me was how it began to build." Each community tried to outdo the next with size of the celebration, he said.
A work group of officials from CSX, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker's office, the Federal Railway Administration and the states and cities were working Wednesday at Biloxi City Hall before the Sept. 4 deadline to get a report to U.S. Congress. Lawmakers want to see a preferred route, what infrastructure and repairs are needed to operate, the cost of restoring train service, and funding sources, Murphy said.
"We have to figure it out. There's an aggressive timeline to do this," he said. This was the third meeting and they will continue to meet every month to put together a plan.
In a roundtable discussion, the group suggested a phased approach. Trains initially would stop at the same stations the Sunset Limited serviced before Katrina, with reviews each year to look at adding more stations or adjusting the stops to reflect population growth.
They suggested a daily round-trip train from New Orleans through South Mississippi to Mobile and a long-distance train that would connect from New Orleans to Orlando through Jacksonville, Fla.
Many factors have to be studied, Murphy said, such as the impact of passenger trains using the existing railroad that also carries freight.
"It would allow us to have passenger rail service other parts of the country enjoy," said Ashley Edwards, a member of the Southern Rail Commission and executive director of the Gulf Coast Business Council.
"It's important for the growth of our communities," he said. "It opens us up to a whole potential tourist market that we are not capturing today," and he said it also would provide service to a commuter workforce at Ingalls Shipbuilding, Stennis and other job sites.
Edwards said Amtrak has made major improvements in the past 10 years since the Sunset Limited operated in South Mississippi. "You have very reliable, dependable service," he said, "on time."