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The Mississippi Gulf Coast hasn’t been closer to getting Amtrak access back in the last 15 years than it is now.
But even with $66 million in awarded funds and a 2022 proposed start date, the return of the passenger rail line — which some prominent officials believe would be an economic boon to the state and help complete years of recovery efforts following Hurricane Katrina — still isn’t a sure thing.
Amtrak’s leadership says after years of failed deliberations that have become mired in politics, they’re done waiting on languished negotiations with freight companies they’re not sure will ever end in an agreement to run the line connecting Mobile to New Orleans.
So, Amtrak has filed a case with an independent federal agency called the Surface Transportation Board, petitioning its members to speed up the process. Mississippi leaders have already thrown their support behind Amtrak’s decision to file, hoping the board could be the last major step in restoring service to a region that’s been cut off from the nation’s passenger rail network since Hurricane Katrina.
“Assessments have shown this route has the capacity to accommodate both Amtrak and freight movement,” U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, a long-time supporter of the plan, told Mississippi Today. “Restoring this route has been delayed long enough.”
The proposed Gulf Coast route would have four stops in Mississippi: Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi and Pascagoula. It would stretch over 200 miles from start to finish and have two trains running both ways — once in the morning and once in the evening.
Amtrak says it can begin the service Jan. 1, 2022. But doing so requires the cooperation of CSX Transportation, which owns some of the needed tracks. The freight company has called that start date an arbitrary deadline and ambitious goal in documents filed with the board.
In his own letter to the Surface Transportation Board, Wicker wrote restoring the rail service “would serve as the culmination of Mississippi’s efforts to recover from Hurricane Katrina.” But it isn’t just Mississippi leaders and businesses longing for transportation options and economic development waiting on the decision from the railroad court.
This long-running Gulf Coast problem has turned into a national test case in passenger access to freight-owned railways. Experts say the results could shape Amtrak’s ability to grow more routes nationwide.
“This isn’t just about the Gulf Coast anymore,” said Knox Ross, a Mississippi representative with the Southern Rail Commission. “It’s become about the expansion of Amtrak.”
In 2006, the freight companies replaced the Gulf Coast tracks that were washed away by Hurricane Katrina. Freight trains soon resumed but the passenger route never came back.
“All those Gulf Coast communities took it as: We don’t count,” said Jim Mathews, the president and CEO of advocacy group Rail Passenger Association.
Amtrak and CSX have been in regular back-and-forth over the future of the route since the grassroots effort for its return picked up steam about six years ago.
The previous route that ran through southern Mississippi was part of a line called the Sunset Limited that stretched from Florida to California. Even Gulf Coast rail advocates admit the former route wasn’t an ideal setup for locals. Trains from the West Coast arrived at the Gulf Coast at odd times and on-time performance was poor.
The new Gulf Coast route, though much shorter, would connect to other nationwide routes like up to Chicago or through Texas to California. More importantly, it allows for day trips to New Orleans or to the Gulf Coast beaches.
“It’d be huge for our small destination,” said Nikki Moon, the owner of Bay Town Inn in Bay St. Louis. “You’re going to have everything from day trippers from New Orleans to vacation home owners coming seven days a week. People will be coming to our shops, our galleries, our restaurants. You can’t put just a dollar figure on that.”
A University of Southern Mississippi researcher came up with a number, though. According to a study from the university, new tourism spending from the train could reach nearly $495 million in one year if the amount of visitors went up by 20%. Should visitors to the Gulf Coast increase by just 1% from the train, new spending would still reach nearly $25 million, the study says.
John Robert Smith is the four-term mayor of Meridian best known for redeveloping the city’s Union Station into a transportation hub that generated tens of millions of dollars in economic development. He can see similar development coming from the Gulf Coast route.
“The trend among the young workforce and aging boomers is to have options of mobility,” said Smith, now a senior policy adviser with Transportation for America. “Mississippi has been exporting their talent for decades and fails to retain our own children, our own talent. The world is changing, time is changing. If we want to play seriously in this new economic development paradigm, our economic choices are key.”
CSX, meanwhile, wants the case to be dropped. In its filing calling for a dismissal, the freight rail says engineers need to complete an impact study before the board can make any decision. A study conducted by a firm commonly contracted by CSX to model how freight and passenger rails would interact has already been started.
Alabama officials, including Gov. Kay Ivey, and the Port of Mobile have sided with the freight companies in pushing for that study to be completed before any passenger route begins.
“I am particularly concerned about the impact to the Port of Mobile, which has been critical to Alabama’s substantial growth in exports in recent years,” Ivey wrote. “An operational modeling study is needed to adequately understand the impact of new Gulf Coast passenger service on freight rail traffic.”
Every mayor from each Gulf Coast city has spoken out in support of the rail. Unlike the Port of Mobile, the Port of Pascagoula and Port of Gulfport say passenger and freight can easily coexist along the route
Bay St. Louis has already spent $1.5 million improving its downtown depot. Gulfport has its new aquarium, and Biloxi casinos are eager for a funnel of new visitors.
Following Amtrak’s March 16 filing, one of its executives, Dennis Newman, said the decision to go to the board was to prevent more delays. Now it’s the board’s job to weed through hundreds of pages of reports, public comments, and train data. It will apply its findings to federal law and determine whether Amtrak can access the tracks.
“We want to deliver this service next year, not some day far away,” Newman said.
Critics of the freight companies say the impact study is another CSX tactic.
“When this study is done, they will want another one,” Mathews said. “They’ll just keep going until it’s delayed into the ground.”
When a contract with the engineers handling the study ended at the start of this year, Amtrak didn’t renew it. It was supposed to take six months and finish in October.
“It dragged on and on,” Ross said.
In their documented response to Amtrak’s filing, the freight rails say they “have not said no” to the passenger route. CSX also says Amtrak needs to continue to cooperate in the engineering analysis that will show if there is “actually a disagreement” that calls for the transportation board’s role as an arbitrator.
“Amtrak elected to abandon the long-standing practice of completing an impact study when the introduction of new passenger service is proposed,” CSX said in a statement to Mississippi Today. “From the onset, CSX prioritized this Amtrak Gulf Coast study, treating each step as expeditiously as possible.”
Both Amtrak and the freight company denied further comment now that the dispute is in front of the transportation board.
Amtrak describes the route as two short and quick trips. CSX says it’s not that simple because the bulk of the route is a single track, according to its filings with the board.
Amtrak, state officials, and the 2017 study by the Gulf Coast Working Group — created by Congress to study the route — have all said the addition of two trains should not congest a corridor that typically services eight freight trains a day. The Federal Railroad Administration was involved in determining those results.
That study also said it would cost about $5.4 million to improve the stations along the route and another $95 million in other improvements, such as adding more siding tracks so the trains can pass each other.
CSX disagreed with the 2017 Gulf Coast Working Group study estimates and said needed improvements were more complex and would cost $2 billion.
Mathews pointed out NASA’s latest Mars rover mission is estimated to cost about $2.7 billion.
Ross said in the years following the 2017 study, the Southern Rail Commission tried to work through the freight rail’s concerns, hosting several meetings with all the players. He’d think they made progress, but plans would continue to stall out.
“We want something that works for everyone,” Ross said, referring to both passenger and freight rail. “We’re all interested in what the Surface Transportation Board has to say because it will be a transparent process to tell us the truth.”
Conflict between freight rail and passenger services is nothing new.
The 1970 act that would lead to the creation of Amtrak also gave the passenger rail right to access freight-owned railways. Before the Rail Passenger Act, railroad companies endured decades of financial distress while handling both transporting people and goods. The act was a bailout plan that forgave railroads of their debts and gave passenger responsibilities to the newly created Amtrak.
If Amtrak and the railroads can’t negotiate over track access, they can go to the Surface Transportation Board, which was established in 1996.
The board, with a growing focus on passenger rail, also has new responsibilities tied to a law passed last year by the Department of Transportation.
That law allows the board to open investigations should passenger trains consistently miss an on-time-performance of 80 percent. Freight companies can face fines or be ordered to update infrastructure if they’re found to be at fault.
“The easiest way to avoid that problem is to just not have passenger trains on your track,” Mathews said.
Amtrak ran what it called an inspection train that started in Florida and made stops in the Gulf Coast in 2016. It was a test run.
The stops were quick — just 10 minutes — as they would be if the route started up again today. But that didn’t keep each city from throwing a party complete with pep rallies, marching bands and speeches. The train didn’t even stop in Ocean Springs, but there was a crowd cheering there, too.
Kay Kell, a long-time Southern Rail Commission member and Pascagoula’s former city manager, remembers how each city fought to out-do the other. She said it felt like a president was passing through.
“I think it’s going to happen, but I’m not foolish enough to think there won’t be hurdles,” Kell said.
The Surface Transportation Board doesn’t have any statutory deadline to decide cases. As of Wednesday, more than 40 letters or comments had been submitted to the board from Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama officials.
Gulf Coast leaders are hopeful this could be it. In Mississippi, it’s become a bipartisan issue — not always the case when it comes to transportation.
“Our counties, our cities, have been hugely supportive not only in words but in money,” said Moon, the hotel owner. “I hate that we have had to wait this long, but it will be worth it because it’s going to be even better.”
She sees herself taking day trips for Saints games and, more importantly, New Orleanians taking weekend trips away from the city to relax at her pool.
With a tourism economy still in recovery from the pandemic, many Gulf Coast business owners think the passenger rail’s return can’t come too soon.
“It will link six major and smaller urban centers,” said Smith, the Meridian mayor turned transportation expert. “It links them for job creation and from one economy to the next.”
Correction 4/13/22: This story has been updated to reflect the correct amount of funding already secured for the Amtrak route.