City closer to Amtrak’s return

Published 4:42 pm Monday, January 28, 2013

The Atmore City Council approved a resolution Monday that moves the city a step closer to once again having an Amtrak stop.

Resolution 2013-02, which Mayor Jim Staff said will be sent to Mobile Mayor Sam Jones, was approved unanimously Monday and displays the council’s willingness to resume its role as part of the once-active Sunset Limited passenger line that ran from Los Angeles to Orlando and was completely halted after portions of the line were damaged during Hurricane Katrina.

“Sam Jones and the mayors of Tallahassee and Biloxi have been pushing for (Atmore) to join in,” Staff said. “The City of Atmore and Poarch would be joining together on this.”

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The approval of Monday’s resolution was just one step in what could be a lengthy process that will likely involve garnering some political support.

According to Monday’s resolution, Amtrak suspended all service on the eastern portion of the Sunset Limited passenger line, running from New Orleans through Mobile, Tallahassee, Jacksonville and Orlando, following the damage it incurred during Hurricane Katrina.

Jerry Gehman, a local railroad historian and part of the group who initially helped bring Amtrak to Atmore, said the company not resuming service following Katrina was an absurd move.

“CSX owns the tracks the Southern Limited traveled on,” Gehman said. “CSX had their tracks up and working between six and seven days after Katrina, and they were fully functional in about two weeks. Amtrak should have resumed, but because of the destruction, the powers that be saw an excuse to stop.”

Gehman said much of the reason Amtrak officials may have been hesitant to resume service, could have been a lack of federal funds available for transportation during the Bush administration.

“It was not that there was no federal funding,” Gehman said “It was that federal funding was pulled from it, because they had an excuse from the hurricane.”

Even now, Gehman said, procuring federal dollars may be the key to bringing the service back to Atmore’s station, adding mayors banding together to show their support is an important first step.

“It takes a collaboration of states to help put political pressure to get the funding done,” he said. “The more mayors you get on board, the more pressure that can be put on congressional districts and Amtrak.”

According to Gehman, the Tri-State Rail Commission, which represents Alabama, Florida and Mississippi, will act as a lobbyist in Washington D.C. for federal funds once enough mayors and other leaders pledge their support.”

As for the impact bringing Amtrak back would have on Atmore, Gehman said the possibilities are endless.

“There are a number of benefits,” he said. “People from Monroeville, Brewton and Bay Minette used to have to come to Atmore to catch the train because Atmore and Mobile were the only stops in Alabama. It pulls people to Atmore from the surrounding area. It brought a travel agency to Atmore. The Best Western hotel bought a van for transportation.”

Gehman said even problems with railway service usually benefited Atmore and its economy.

“When something would happen and there was a problem not related to Amtrak, like a bridge stuck or a freight train derailed, Amtrak would stop in Atmore and people would get out and mull around town for hours. Sutton’s Café used to be 24 hours a day because of the train station.”

Yet another advantage the train would bring, Gehman said, is another source of transportation for people visiting Wind Creek Casino and Hotel, and subsequently, Atmore.

“The casino would bring people here off the train. Would it bring more people to Atmore? Yes it would. Those people would get off and they would interface with our city, whether it be food or shopping. There is an economic impact. Anything we can use to promote Atmore and make us different is something that we need to do.”

In the end, Gehman said he believes bringing Amtrak back would benefit both Atmore and the company.

“Atmore was built because of the railroad,” he said. “Atmore is still the official rail welcome center for the state of Alabama. It’s jus a great alternate source of transportation. When it was here before, we met or superceded the required passengers for a certain stop. In 1991, we had the highest ridership of any city our size in the U.S.”

At Monday’s meeting, Staff said more information about the possible resurgence of Amtrak will be released once it is made available.