As advocates continue to fight for the restoration of a passenger rail service along the Gulf Coast, President Trump’s proposed federal budget threatens to derail the chances of any such effort becoming a reality.
Officials with Amtrak and the Southern Rail Commission are holding meetings from New Orleans to Jacksonville this week to provide updates on the plans to bring back Amtrak’s passenger rail service east of New Orleans.
12 years ago, the iconic red, white, and blue striped Amtrak passenger trains ceased operation on much of the Gulf Coast. The line had previously hosted Amtrak’s Sunset Limited between Los Angeles and Miami — once North America’s only transcontinental route — but after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005, the route was severed. While repairs to the route’s tracks were made quickly, the route was never restored east of New Orleans.
This week, the Southern Rail Commission and Amtrak are attending meetings along the Gulf Coast to update stakeholders on progress made over the last year, and to share the next steps necessary to bring the service to reality.
Last year, as part of an inspection of the route’s railway, Amtrak operated a two-day trip over the route between New Orleans and Jacksonville. Officials estimated that over the two-day trip, more than 10,000 people came out to support and witness the train passing through their communities for the first time in more than a decade.
“We are closer to the realization of the return of intercity passenger rail service to the Gulf South than we have been since 2005,” Thomas Stennis III, Amtrak’s Director of Government Affairs South, said this week.
Those hopes to bring Amtrak back, however, could be derailed if President Donald Trump gets his way. Trump is proposing a $2.4 billion, 12.9 percent budget cut to the Department of Transportation. The budget would essentially end passenger service throughout much of the country, which includes 15 long-distance trains, according to Amtrak officials.
The only services that would survive such heavy cuts would be corridor rail lines, which operate largely in the Northeast, across Illinois, parts of California, and the Pacific Northwest.
“In order for this service to be restored across America’s Gulf South, Amtrak’s long distance network must remain fully intact,” the Southern Rail Commission said in a memo to stakeholders. “These trains are not only vital to America’s nation-wide transportation network but are also critical to so many rural communities that have limited transportation options.”
As Congress begins to debate the details of Trump’s proposed budget, officials are asking members of the public to reach out to their elected officials to advocate for the service as the financial details of restoring the service are negotiated — which won’t come cheap. Officials estimate that $157 million will be needed to start the service, including improvements and construction of passenger stations. Additionally, officials said this month that negotiations with the rail line’s owner, CSX Transportation, have been difficult.
“With support and grass roots efforts of stakeholders, we will have an opportunity to inaugurate Amtrak service along the Gulf Coast again in the near future,” said Stennis.