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Ready for a vacation? The Gulf Coast has a new ally in bringing back passenger trains

The Amtrak Inspection Train arrives in Gulfport on Feb. 18, 2016. The train ride began in New Orleans, making stops at Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi Pascagoula before heading to Alabama and Florida.
The Amtrak Inspection Train arrives in Gulfport on Feb. 18, 2016. The train ride began in New Orleans, making stops at Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi Pascagoula before heading to Alabama and Florida. ttisbell@sunherald.com File

The Coast gained an important ally in its push to regain passenger train service when Pascagoula native William Feidt was named chief financial officer of Amtrak earlier this year.

It is the second time the Pascagoula native has joined an agency or corporation in need of a shakeup. Mississippi Department of Marine Resources Executive Director Jamie Miller hired Feidt in 2013 as CFO to help him straighten out a scandal-riddled agency.

“The stuff we had to deal with was just insane,” Feidt said. Most of that insanity was caused by former Director Bill Walker who went to prison for crimes committed at DMR. Several members of his staff were convicted as well. “It’s such an important agency to the Gulf Coast. That was one of the things that attracted me to it. It was an opportunity to give back to the community because that agency had to be functioning well.”

At Amtrak, he said, “we had our own craziness here.”

The 46-year-old Amtrak has been struggling with fatal crashes, a spotty on-time record, the need for major repairs and the threat of deep budget cuts by President Donald Trump.

And Feidt has been dealing with personal challenges as well. He left DMR in 2015 for Cable and Wireless Communications Inc. in Miami. While there, Feidt was dealt a devastating blow.

“I had been there a year and while we were getting bought out by a bigger company, I was diagnosed with lymphoma,” he said. “I decided having lost my dad to cancer, it was best to be close to friends and family for my treatment so I moved back to Pascagoula with my mother to do my six months of chemotherapy.

“It’s very frightening to be told you have a 70 percent chance of survival,” he said. “That’s good but that’s still a one-third chance of death. If you told me there was a one-third chance I would not make it home safely if I went to work, I probably wouldn’t go to work.”

But that illness, in a way, led him to Amtrak’s headquarters in Washington D.C.

“Near the end (of chemotherapy) when it was clear I was going to be healthy again and would want to work, a friend of mine introduced me to Wick Moorman,” he said. “The tie between Wick and I is Wick’s from Hattiesburg.

Amtrak had lured Moorman, former CEO of Norfolk Southern Railroad, out of retirement to turn things around.

“Talking to Wick as a fellow Mississippian, we just seemed to hit it off,” Feidt said. “The timing was perfect. Just as I finished chemo and was ready to get back to work, he had this opportunity to come here and help him do some great things.”

Amtrak, he said, seems poised for great things. For one, former Delta Airlines chief Richard Anderson was hired in July as co-CEO to Moorman who’ll leave the job in December but stay with Amtrak as an adviser.

Anderson, Feidt said, is heavily focused on customer safety, customer service and operating efficiently.

“Not only making sure our on-time performance is good but we have to be good stewards of the federal and state money we’re provided with,” he said. “We owe it to the taxpayers to make sure we’re spending that money efficiently and effectively.”

But even with the budget under the knife, or ax, Feidt said there is momentum on the Coast’s side.

“The skinny budget aside, there’s a lot of support for us right now when we talk to different people out in the communities,” he said. “When they did the train last year, the turnout was just phenomenal. We had a meeting the other day and they were showing pictures of Pascagoula.”

A monumental program to shore up the northeast line could prove that Amtrak is up to the task of dealing with its other issues as well as expansion projects such as the addition of a Gulf Coast line from Louisiana to Orlando. That was the recommendation of Coast leaders in the Gulf Coast Working Group that issued its report in July. The next step is getting CSX, the owner of the line, the state transportation departments of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, and federal officials sitting down to negotiate, Feidt said.

“Once we get the cost figured out,” he said, “then we have to figure out how we’re going to pay for it, who’s going to pay for it and the funding mechanism.”

Mississippi Gulf Coast residents welcome Amtrak at depots in three counties during a trial run on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016.

Paul Hampton: 228-284-7296, @JPaulHampton

Bill Feidt

Education: Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering, Ole Miss, 1993; Master of Business Administration, The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, 1999.

Prior employment: director of finance and planning, World Comm; vice president, Strategic and Tactical Support Inc; chief financial officer, Mississippi Department of Marine Resources; senior vice president, Cable and Wireless Communications; chief financial officer, Amtrak.

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