Study inches New Orleans-to-Mobile passenger train closer to reality

TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD/FILEA crowd at Biloxi waves as the Amtrak Sunset Limited pulls out of the station in 1993. That service ended in 2005.
TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD/FILEA crowd at Biloxi waves as the Amtrak Sunset Limited pulls out of the station in 1993. That service ended in 2005.

GULFPORT -- If an Orlando-New Orleans Amtrak route materializes, Coast cities will be waiting at the station.

"Here in Biloxi, we're well-positioned," Biloxi Mayor "FoFo" Gilich said. "Our Biloxi Transit Center in our downtown has the waiting area, the ticket windows, the parking space, the cab service, thousands of hotel rooms a short drive or walk away -- and let's not forget MGM Park.

"This multi-model transit center is not where it is by accident. All we need is a good platform at the railway, and we're ready to say 'Welcome to Biloxi' or 'All aboard,' depending on if they're coming or going."

Although an Amtrak study found passenger service here is feasible, it won't arrive without a substantial investment -- either by the state, federal government, the cities on the route or some combination of those governmental units.

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Amtrak did the study of rail-service options for the Southern Rail Commission, a group advocating for a resumption of rail service. It said extending the City of New Orleans route that runs from Chicago to New Orleans on to Orlando and combining it with a daily state-supported New Orleans-to-Mobile round-trip route would give the best balance of operating costs and ridership benefits. That option, it found, would require $9.49 million a year in equipment and operating expenses. It figured that route would generate a ridership of 153,900.

Taking out the daily New Orleans-to-Mobile round trip would reduce the cost to $5.48 million annually and reduce ridership to 138,300, Amtrak predicted.

Gulfport Mayor Billy Hewes said he anticipates most of the money will come from the federal government.

"Then it's a matter of getting the ridership up to sustain that funding," Hewes said.

He's optimistic that will happen if the trains run on time.

"Any time you can bring more people to the Coast, that's a positive," he said. "It would be a great experience. There are generations who have never had a train ride. From that standpoint, it would be a novelty."

The Coast has had passenger service several times. A train ran between Mobile and New Orleans in 1984 in conjunction with the Louisiana World's Fair Exposition. In 1993, Amtrak extended the Los Angeles-to-New Orleans Sunset Limited run through the Coast and on to Miami. That included a New Orleans-to-Mobile service, which ended in 1997. But the Sunset Limited extension was plagued by a poor on-time record and it ended the same month Katrina hammered the Coast.

Even before the Coast recovered from the storm local officials were talking about returning rail service.

"The most important thing about this Amtrak study is that is it an acknowledgement that daily passenger rail service for the Gulf Coast is viable," said Gilich. "The daily service is something that Biloxi, the cities on the Gulf Coast and the Southern Rail Commission have advocated for years. This is about economic and tourism development across the Gulf Coast."

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