A train full of elected, civic and other local leaders from the Gulf Coast and beyond will ride a special Amtrak inspection train from New Orleans to Jacksonville, Florida this week — a step toward restoring the passenger rail service east of New Orleans wiped out by Hurricane Katrina more than ten years ago — and Transportation for America will be along for the ride.
When Hurricane Katrina came ashore in September of 2005, it wreaked havoc on all aspects of the Gulf Coast’s transportation network. Roads were underwater, bridges were washed away, transit systems shut down, airports closed temporarily, and passenger/freight rail through the most heavily afflicted region east of New Orleans closed indefinitely. After months and years of rebuilding in the region, including a mammoth five-month rebuilding effort along the CSX-owned freight rail line (also used by passenger trains) to reconnect the region, every one of those transportation modes was eventually restored.
Every one of those modes, that is, except for passenger rail service from New Orleans to Florida along those same CSX tracks.
That could be about to change, and this week will be the first chapter in the story of how that could happen. Well, it’s more like the fifth or sixth chapter, because the inspection train being run this week from New Orleans to Jacksonville by Amtrak in partnership with the Southern Rail Commission and CSX is not the beginning of the story.
This week, we’re going to be telling more of this story of how a coalition of local leaders, mayors, businessmen, governors and ultimately their representatives in Congress are leading the way to create what could be the first new long-distance passenger rail service in the U.S. in more than half a century — not in the Midwest, not in the Northeast, but down in the deep South.
It’s the product of an amazing amount of work by the Southern Rail Commission, a Congressionally established tri-state rail compact with members appointed by the governors of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. SRC has been hard at work bringing together local mayors along the line and building support amongst business leaders in the region. (Note: Transportation for America serves in an official capacity as policy advisors for SRC. -Ed.)
These efforts were heartily supported early on by a conservative governor in Mississippi and ultimately advanced in a key way by a bipartisan collection of congressional representatives from the region (Senators Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran of Mississippi, and Senator Bill Nelson and Representative Corrine Brown of Florida) and far beyond (Senator Cory Booker of NJ) in 2015 with the FAST Act surface transportation law.
While the FAST Act overall was a missed opportunity, it did for the first time ever also include passenger rail policy, including a provision that created a new working group to study exactly how to restore Gulf Coast passenger rail service. The omnibus budget bill passed in late 2015 provided the funding to start the working group. Led by Administrator Sara Feinberg of the Federal Railroad Administration, the working group held its kickoff meeting in New Orleans Tuesday where Feinberg encouraged the group to think bigger than just restoring service to the region, but to also consider how to build a system ready for the region’s future population and economic growth.
A few of us from Transportation for America will be riding on the inspection train on Thursday and Friday this week, and we’ll be writing a few posts, posting photos, and talking to some of the mayors of cities from Louisiana to Florida along the line on the train about why they’re all in on passenger rail helping them reach their economic development goals.
For a taste of what we’re expecting to see, John Sharp with AL.com has some ideas:
Marching bands will lead pep rallies in Gulfport, Bay St. Louis and Biloxi while a jazz band will serenade a gathering in Pascagoula. In Mobile, the Excelsior Band will be on hand in what could be a Mardi Gras-themed welcoming. And all along the Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida Gulf coasts, people will be encouraged to show up, bring signs and wave banners in support of Amtrak’s first trip from New Orleans east toward Jacksonville, Fla., since before Hurricane Katrina blasted through a decade ago.
Update: Find links to all of our posts and photos from the trip as well as a short video we produced on the trip here in this short recap post.