Throughout the last century, railroad stations dotted southern Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast as passenger trains ferried commuters between New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Mobile, stopping at towns along the along the way.
But the last few decades have not been favorable to passenger rail transport. Kansas City Southern ended its Southern Belle service between New Orleans and Baton Rouge in 1969. Then, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed the tracks between New Orleans and Mobile, ending service to Kansas City Southern. east and transforming the deposits along the coast into artifacts of a bygone era.
Today, the prospect of these roads returning to service is pushing communities along the lines to scramble to buy land, build infrastructure and open businesses.
The two proposed routes — one with two round trips each way between New Orleans and Baton Rouge and another between New Orleans and Mobile — still have regulatory and financial hurdles to clear. But advocates say they are confident Amtrak trains could carry commuters and vacationers over the next two years.
“I think… they’re both going to be finished in the short term,” said John Spain, who sits on the board of the Southern Rail Commission, a three-state group that has studied both routes and advocated for their return. .
Current Amtrak service to New Orleans consists of three lines. The Sunset Limited serves Los Angeles via the Houma-Thibodaux area, Texas and Arizona; the city of New Orleans leaves the city heading west but turns north just past Lake Pontchartrain toward Memphis and Chicago; and the Crescent leaves town heading east but turns north at Slidell toward Atlanta and New York.
Amtrak argues that the new lines would significantly expand New Orleans’ current passenger rail options.
“Imagine how the hub you already have there becomes even more of a hub,” Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said. “You can live in New Orleans and go to all these places and come back the same day.”
Each of the two new proposed new routes faces its own hurdle, but Spain and others say these could be overcome as early as the next six months or so. Both involve Amtrak paying to use existing freight rail lines, which it does nationwide.
To the west
The road to Baton Rouge awaits federal approval of Canadian National’s $31 billion bid to buy Kansas City Southern.
With the acquisition set to go ahead, Spain said the deal bodes well for passenger rail because Kansas City Southern is the only one of the seven freight rail companies to have no existing agreement with Amtrak. If and when the deal is approved, the track between New Orleans and Baton Rouge will belong to Canadian National, which has more passenger rail deals with Amtrak than any other freight carrier, Spain said.
Canadian National officials told Governor John Bel Edwards that they were ready to support passenger rail. And while the $12.5 million recently approved by the Legislature to help the state secure its share of $33 billion in federal infrastructure funding is only half of what the governor has asked for, the Spain said the state was still in a good position to push the project forward.
The largest remaining cost is about $80 million to replace a section of rail on the Bonnet Carré weir, where wooden supports force freight trains to slow to 10 miles per hour. But Spain said at least one of the two planned trips could become a reality relatively quickly, although it could be a bit slower than what should ultimately be an estimated 80-minute journey time.
Track to the east
The return of service between New Orleans and Mobile awaits the resolution of a more complicated issue.
There, Amtrak is in federal mediation over a dispute with freight operator CSX and the Port of Mobile, after the three entities failed to reach an agreement on how to balance Amtrak’s needs for two daily round trips with freight industry demands during a tightening supply chain.
CSX, the port and some industry representatives have argued that passenger service is a threat to the economies of Alabama and Mississippi. But Amtrak and rail advocates say those concerns are overblown and point to Amtrak’s legal right to use the tracks.
“We hope the right decision will be made to allow Amtrak to return to our shores,” said Jeff Roesel, executive director of the Regional Planning Commission.
The Federal Council for Surface Transport could decide by the end of the summer.
A “godsend” for small towns
While plans for a roughly 90mph train running twice a day on both routes took years to hatch, communities along the way anxiously awaited a decision.
In New Orleans, Mayor LaToya Cantrell voiced support for passenger rail, which she says is critical to economic and workforce development and could play a crucial role in getting vulnerable residents out of the city during hurricane evacuations. Local business leaders also say two-way passenger rail connections would allow New Orleans to market itself as a super region to business prospects, competing with cities it currently cannot.
“Having a region with a skilled workforce and having access to that workforce is extremely important,” said Peter Waggoner, policy expert at Greater New Orleans Inc.
Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome also expressed support for the new routes.
The same goes for small towns along the lines.
In fact, along the Mississippi Gulf Coast route – which would have stops in Bay St. Louis, Pascagoula, Gulfport and Biloxi – the promise of passenger rail transportation has already sparked investment.
In Pascagoula, City Manager Michael Silverman said $48 million in residential, hotel and commercial projects had sprung up, in part due to anticipation of the return of rail service, and the depot is expected to undergo of a $2 million renovation that could incorporate a brewery.
Bay St. Louis’ recently secured $2 million to invest in the Depot District, which has been run down for much of the time since Katrina. Concert stages and reception areas are being developed, and around half a million will go to the depot itself, which currently houses a museum. Across the park from the slopes, a once-empty strip of storefronts is now almost entirely filled with restaurants, a pet store, and a yoga studio.
“Hopefully it’s going to be a godsend,” said Alan Lagarde, who recently opened Lagarde’s Fine Wine & Spirits there. Hot summers can be a challenge, he says, “but I think in the fall and spring it’s going to be amazing.”
Gonzales Mayor Barney Arceneaux said his town has owned three acres of land near the tracks for several years and applied for a federal grant to help build a depot in town. Arceneaux said the need to alleviate commuter traffic on I-10 is critical and that “we think economically it would be really good for us.”
Where to stop?
While plans for both routes call for a number of stops along the way, Spain warns the final say will come when Amtrak and the state Department of Transportation reach agreements across the line. Federal regulatory hurdles, significant as they are, do not apply to the specifics of what passenger rail looks like in Louisiana. It will be to Amtrak and the state.
Spain noted that stops slowed travel time and if everyone who wanted one had one, the train would take too long. The second stop in the Baton Rouge medical district and the stop in Gonzales are quite firm, as is the one at or near Louis Armstrong International Airport in Kenner. Stops in Jefferson Parish and Riverside Parishes are still uncertain.
Stops to the east – where depots that operated before Katrina still exist – are safer. Amtrak spokesman Magliari said nearly $1 million work will begin in the coming weeks to outfit Mississippi’s four stations with new lighting, boarding areas, platforms, and more. ADA compliant shapes and panels.
A bill passed in the recent legislative session also requires state transportation officials to complete technical and financial studies of the line from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, which Spain says is telling. local leaders’ sense of urgency to make service a reality when political conditions are favourable.
After all, the federal infrastructure bill includes $33 billion for rail, and former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu is President Biden’s infrastructure czar.
“It’s cool that passenger rail has a statewide legislative interest,” said GNO Inc.’s Wagoner, “and this act is huge.”