As Amtrak plans for a 2023 start date, the freight companies and Alabama port that once said passenger rail’s return to the Mississippi Gulf Coast could be detrimental to business are now pledging millions of dollars in improvements to the tracks between Mobile and New Orleans.
The freight companies and Alabama Port Authority have promised to pay a collective $15 million to improve the passenger train’s route in efforts to decrease the total time it will take Amtrak to go between New Orleans and Mobile, according to details obtained by a Mississippi Today records request.
Amtrak had been at odds with the freight companies for years — so much so it filed a complaint to a federal board that has spent the last determining if the freight-owned tracks could handle added passenger traffic.
Arguments, at times, got ugly with Amtrak once posting a live video feed and snarky tweets about how often — or not — freight trains came through the corridor.
Amtrak, the port, and freight companies CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern mediated an agreement over the once-contested route, rather than putting the dispute to a board vote. Since they announced that agreement last month, they have all been tight-lipped about its terms or specifics about the route’s future beyond saying it was moving ahead.
Mississippi Today has been able to glean some details of what the parties have planned after examining a copy of a grant application by the Southern Rail Commission that requests nearly $179 million in federal money to help pay for a “Gulf Coast Corridor Improvement Project.” The application also details $44 million in non-federal matching funds from the project’s partners.
“What I can say is that once these improvements are made, it will result in a 3-hour-and-23-minute trip time,” Southern Rail Commission chairman Knox Ross told Mississippi Today. “At the beginning, you will have something longer than that.”
The Southern Rail Commission was already awarded $33 million in 2019 through the same grant program — Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements Grant Program – for the Gulf Coast route. None of that money has been spent yet.
Under the Biden Administration, there is $1.4 billion available to improve railways’ speed and safety this year through the program. That’s more than four times the amount allocated in 2021, according to the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association.
The improvement plans in this year’s application detail construction and track improvements lasting until 2026, but the route can still run while the bulk of the improvements are being made.
Ross declined to comment further on the application or agreement. Amtrak referred any comments back to the information submitted in the hefty application.
In a letter supporting the project included in the application, CSX specified it would pay nearly $9.9 million in matching funds.
“The Project will facilitate the introduction of a new twice-daily Amtrak service between New Orleans and Mobile, while simultaneously supporting freight service quality,” wrote the company’s Executive Vice President of Operations Jamie Boychuk.
In a similar letter, the Alabama State Port Authority promised to contribute $750,000 in funds to support the route. The Mississippi Legislature had already allocated just under $14 million in funding to support route improvements. The state of Louisiana has pledged roughly another $9 million. The Port of Pascagoula pledged $2 million.
Amtrak has an existing $6 million in contributions.
“Implementing a twice-daily service between New Orleans and Mobile would provide a huge economic lift to Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi and Pascagoula, and other cities along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast,” wrote U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker in a letter also included with the application. “It would serve as a culmination of Mississippi’s efforts to recover from Hurricane Katrina. Since 2010, the population of the Mississippi Gulf Coast has grown steadily, and an additional transportation option would encourage further growth and improve quality of life for current residents.”
The application spells out 12 separate “components” within the overall project totaling about $223 million.
Among the listed improvements is a new station track in Mobile, which will not be funded by the grant but by CSX, according to the application. The improvements will allow for Amtrak trains to board and deboard passengers within the Mobile Terminal downtown.
The proposed grant-funded improvements include extending tracks, installing new switches and turnouts, additional crossovers and improving stations, yard and crossings. Specifically, it calls for “significant station improvements” along the Mississippi stops.
That includes a new station building in Biloxi and platform canopies in Bay St. Louis and Gulfport. In Pascagoula, Amtrak may attempt to acquire the historic train depot, which was built in 1904 and registered as a historic place in the 1970s, or build a new building nearby.
The plan also calls for improving railroad crossings at multiple points on the 85-miles of track that go through Mississisippi.
Should the grant be awarded, project management would be coordinated by Ross and the Southern Rail Commission.
In a note included in the application, the Southern Rail Commission explained it’s asking for more funds than it did in 2018 because the costs of construction and the available infrastructure dollars have increased, and because of the new public-private partnerships “bringing momentum.”
“This Project is the epitome of various parties joining together to commit resources to expand intercity passenger service while maintaining viable freight networks essential to the economic viability of the rural areas and ensuring the safety and efficiency of operations in the New Orleans to Mobile rail corridor,” the commission wrote.
Ultimately, the commission hopes to make Union Passenger Terminal in New Orleans a hub that connects Mobile — and its Mississippi stops in between — with routes to Baton Rouge and toward Texas.