The Advocate. July 18, 2022.
Editorial: Work it out, somehow, to restore and expand passenger train service
When Hurricane Katrina blew through the Gulf Coast, it devastated all sorts of infrastructure, including coastal highways — and train tracks. Now, a debate between Amtrak and freight railroads is playing out over whether there will again be passenger rail from New Orleans to the Atlantic seaboard, or something like the services available until 2005.
Or beyond that, as Amtrak has proposed daily service along the Gulf Coast between the Union Passenger Terminal in New Orleans and Mobile. That’s more than the thrice-weekly trains that ran pre-Katrina.
Amid stalled negotiations between Amtrak and the CSX railroad that owns the tracks, the federal Surface Transportation Board ordered mediation. A recommendation by the panel is likely to come this summer.
The theory is that railroads are obligated by law to open their tracks to passenger service, part of the deal to create Amtrak in 1970. Now, with a devoted fan of passenger rail in the White House — President Joe Biden formerly commuted between the U.S. Senate and his Delaware home on the train — Amtrak seeks to expand its national footprint, and that means using more tracks around the country.
So the conversation over track usage here is watched closely to see if there are obstacles to more passenger trains nationwide.
The Washington Post reported on the national implications of the Gulf Coast debate, where the two sides couldn’t agree on the capital investment needed to restore service; the difference between the railroad company ($440 million) and the Federal Railroad Administration ($118 million) is no small divergence.
The issue divides states and localities, too. Mississippi is all for the Amtrak plan of two daily round trips to Mobile, including stops in Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi and Pascagoula. Alabama is reticent, as the Port of Mobile — like ports in Louisiana — is made more competitive as a shipping hub because of rail service.
Louisiana’s ports are supported by one of the nation’s best arrays of freight lines. The economic benefits of combining barges, ships and rails are enormous. No one wants to overload the tracks.
At the same time, more services to UPT downtown will make New Orleans even more of a destination for travelers. International visitors, who are lucrative customers of hotels and restaurants, won’t rent cars as much but would probably enjoy a scenic rail trip along the Gulf to extend their stays.
And Amtrak rather snidely has put video of the empty track on its website, suggesting that fears of overloading it with a couple of trains a day are overblown.
The Southern Rail Commission has pushed for expanded service in the region. The commission says that, once a merger of two railroads is complete, long-sought passenger service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans will be possible.
But the Amtrak-CSX debate does call into question the future of passenger rail expansion across the country, where the typically single-track rails will juggle freight and Amtrak trains.
We support rail service to Baton Rouge from New Orleans, which will be a boon to business as well as leisure travelers. All systems seem “go” so far.
And tourism remains a driver of the economy in New Orleans and in Louisiana. Passenger rail along the Gulf Coast ought to be part of the mix.
We hope that this new dispute can be resolved in favor of more options for travelers, not fewer.