Officials: Amtrak return close

Published 12:02 am Wednesday, April 19, 2017

MOBILE — The Southern Rail Commission and Amtrak are the closest they’ve ever been in 12 years to restoring passenger rail service along the Gulf Coast, officials said Wednesday.

Officials with Amtrak, elected officials and those representing the SRC gave an update on the progress of returning the train service during a meeting at Mobile Government Plaza.

Among the topics discussed at the meeting were when could the train service return, what the next step will be for train stations and getting CSX on board with the service.

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Twelve years ago, Hurricane Katrina wiped out passenger service along the Gulf Coast, and since then, an effort has been made to get its return.

Last February, an Amtrak test train made a stop in Atmore, to see if the stop would be an option.

Todd Stennis, Amtrak’s senior manager of the company’s south territory, said the Gulf Coast Work Group report is still in the works. The report will help indicate what needs need to be met as far as stations along the route.

Amtrak Spokesman Marc Magliari said he’s hoping the report should come back by Memorial Day.

“The Atmore station is in pretty good shape,” he said. “We need for it to be a safe, well lit station.

“The biggest part of this isn’t getting the stations done, it’s making the deal with CSX using their tack, and to run reliably and to run their freight business,” he said. “We want to see the passenger trains and freight trains co-exist and they can when the right kind of targeted improvements.”

Stennis said Amtrak’s position on returning passenger train service to the Gulf Coast is pretty clear.

“We are for it,” he said.

Stennis said the only way to return service is to put the necessary pieces of the puzzle together to make it happen, including garnering political support and acquiring finances for capital investments.

“We are closer now than we have ever been in 12 years,” he said.

Stennis said this is really a matter of transportation.

Knox Ross, who is a commissioner on the SRC from Mississippi, said elected officials say they want to see the passenger service return.

“We are working with the appropriations committee with the U.S. Senate,” he said.

Ross added that the SRC met with then Sen. Jeff Sessions, who urged them to get the service’s return “close.”

“We have a plan,” he said. “There’s no intention of asking what can’t be done.”

Ross said there are two things citizens need to be aware of in regard to returning the service to the area.

He said representatives aren’t supporting President Donald Trump’s budget proposal to cut department of transportation spending, which effects long-distance train service, in Congress.

Additionally, representatives need to know that the return of the train service is important to citizens, he said.

Stennis said Amtrak is looking to extend its train service — from NOLA to Chicago — to Oralndo, Fla., and adding other routes east or west to the line.

A key factor in the return of passenger rail service is keeping the line going.

One of those factors is the condition of stations.

At present, the Atmore station is in pretty good shape, officials said.

Mayor Jim Staff said the city is planning on installing a handicap bathroom, closing the main area off at the station and the main expense is going to be the platform. The platform needs to be compliant withe with the American with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Staff said he doesn’t know what the cost will be.