Working group studies restoring Amtrak’s Gulf Coast service

A working group that was established to study the return of Gulf Coast passenger rail service told lawmakers it is making significant progress in its efforts, but still has to identify cost estimates and possible funding solutions.

Service along the route between New Orleans and Orlando was suspended after Hurricane Katrina caused severe damage to the region’s railroad infrastructure in 2005. 

{mosads}The absence of service has limited transportation for 20 million annual travelers and 4 million residents, according to the Gulf Coast Working Group, while demand for other Amtrak intercity passenger rail services in the area has increased more than 20 percent.

“The region is ready to restore service, not only because its residents hold fond memories of it, but because it is now an economic necessity,” the group said in its update to Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and leaders on the House and Senate transportation committees.

The surface transportation bill that lawmakers passed at the end of 2015 created a working group that is required to submit a report to Congress within nine months that suggests a preferred option for restoring service, outlines costs and benefits and identifies potential funding sources.

A 2008 passenger rail law required Amtrak to come up with a plan for restoring rail service in the region. But the Gulf Coast Working Group is comprised of a wider group of stakeholders — including the Federal Railroad Administration, Southern Rail Commission, CSX, Amtrak, and local transportation departments — and has helped build new momentum for restarting Amtrak service along the Gulf Coast.

The group told lawmakers that it prefers a daily, overnight long-distance train between New Orleans and Orlando that would operate as an extension of the Chicago-to-New Orleans route. It also would support an additional, daily state-supported train operating round-trip between New Orleans and Mobile, Ala.

The group has met twice a month either by teleconference or in person; assessed existing infrastructure and ridership; and “made significant headway on other elements needed to complete the report,” which it expects to finalize sometime this year.

But the group still needs to determine the physical infrastructure needed to support daily passenger service, develop a cost estimate, identify possible funding sources and highlight the benefits and challenges.

“The final report will describe in detail the track, signaling, stations and other infrastructure needed to restore service,” the group said.

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