SUN HERALD | Editorial: Before we get onboard the train, we need answers

Amtrak is considering resuming service through South Mississippi.
Amtrak is considering resuming service through South Mississippi. Photo courtesy Amtrak

City officials across the Coast seem convinced the time is right for the return of passenger trains. We say that based on the celebratory atmosphere they're trying to create at the stops for the Amtrak inspection tour Thursday.

We, however, have questions. An Amtrak study released in December described a best-case scenario -- a run from New Orleans to Orlando that would include a daily train between New Orleans and Mobile.

The annual cost to the state would be $9.49 million ($3.78 million of that for the New Orleans-to-Mobile run). Who would pay? Amtrak says the state. Some Coast officials say the federal government. But the correct answer is the taxpayer.

And with state revenues shrinking and roads and bridges falling into disrepair, we have to ask if an Amtrak line is the best use of taxpayer money.

The last time the Coast had passenger trains, the Sunset Limit also began with great fanfare -- and respectable ridership. But less than 10 years later, ridership had fallen off and in 2005 the route ended. The main culprit? The trains didn't run on time.

Amtrak would be using the same CSX tracks as it did in 2005. That means that freight trains still would get first dibs on the tracks. And that makes it unlikely the timeliness problem has been solved.

The subsidy amounts to about $108 a ticket ($3.78 million divided by 34,800 passengers) for the New Orleans-to-Mobile route.

In the Northeast, the most successful region for Amtrak, government subsidies pay about $60 a ticket.

In Europe, where passenger trains work, the railways are owned by the government, the trains can compete with airlines and they are more efficient than driving. In other words, they are nothing like Amtrak.

We'd love to be able to take a train ride to Orlando and all points in between but there has to be a better way than to ask the taxpayer to pay regardless of whether he or she is on board.

This editorial represents the views of the Sun Herald editorial board. Opinions of columnists, and cartoonists are their own.