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New track delays holding up Amtrak’s Gulf Coast service

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(The Center Square) – Delays with new track in Alabama are being cited by Amtrak officials as the holdup for new service on the Gulf Coast.

The Surface Transportation Board at a Wednesday hearing ordered Amtrak, freight railroads, the city of Mobile and others to make a “detailed” status report in 30 days. Amtrak said an operating agreement for land use for a station with the city of Mobile has not been finalized.

Board Chairman Martin Oberman criticized Amtrak for taking 15 months to reach a negotiated settlement.

“Make some progress,” Oberman said. “We’ve got some people in this room that have done some fast legal work. Get it done. Many people are wondering when the trains will be running.”

At issue for Mobile is 3,000 feet of layover track that would allow shared track by Amtrak and CSX freight trains. While the Feb. 1 status report says that the Mobile project – funded separately from the other parts of the line by Amtrak – is the subject of a design and construction agreement by Amtrak and CSX, Amtrak officials when questioned by Oberman couldn’t offer a timeline for its completion.

In a Feb. 9 letter, U.S. Sen. Katie Britt, R-Alabama, said, “It has been and will continue to be of utmost importance that the return of Amtrak to the region does not impede operations at the Port, which is vital for the economy in all 67 of Alabama’s counties.”

In November 2022, the parties involved in the bid to bring twice-daily service between Mobile and New Orleans reached a tentative agreement that satisfied the concerns of CSX, Norfolk Southern and the Port of Mobile. Mississippi has already committed about $15 million in state taxpayer money to the project, with Louisiana adding $10 million.

After the settlement was reached, the Southern Rail Commission and Amtrak applied for a $178 million Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements Program grant to help improve trackage and other infrastructure needed to restore service to the coast. The two announced the award of the grant on Sept. 21.

Passenger rail service on the Gulf Coast has been a priority of the Southern Rail Commission, an Interstate Rail Compact created in 1982 by Congress and consisting of commissioners appointed by the governors of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. Service was stopped after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 amid declining ridership.

According to the Amtrak 2015 feasibility study for restoration of Gulf Coast rail service, total trips declined 45.2% from 148,387 in fiscal 1993 to 81,348 in 2005. The study blamed reliability issues and delays with the trains, plus the loss of taxpayer funding from the three states.

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