News & Reviews News Wire Amtrak should bail out on proposed Gulf Coast service: Analysis

Amtrak should bail out on proposed Gulf Coast service: Analysis

By Bill Stephens | February 16, 2024

The passenger railroad should focus its expansion efforts in areas where it enjoys state and local support and can fill its trains

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With the Mobile Convention Center as a backdrop, Amtrak’s westbound Gulf Coast Limited prepares to depart Mobile for New Orleans on the morning of July 29, 1996. That train operated until March 31, 1997, when state funding was withdrawn. Delays in reviving Mobile-New Orleans service were the subject of a Surface Transportation Board hearing on Wednesday, Feb. 14. Bob Johnston

Nearly three years after Amtrak said it would launch Gulf Coast service with or without host railroad cooperation, its passenger trains still are not running between Mobile, Ala., and New Orleans. And as the saga drags on you have to wonder if they ever will.

After years of frustration with CSX, Amtrak in 2021 took a “ready, fire, aim” approach to bring passenger service back to the Gulf Coast. The passenger railroad told CSX and Norfolk Southern it planned to begin service between Mobile and New Orleans in January 2022 – despite the lack of an agreement with the host railroads, the completion of a traffic study, or identifying what capacity projects would be necessary to keep four daily trains on schedule.

Yes, Amtrak has made some progress. First, the railroad hauled CSX and NS before the Surface Transportation Board over blocking its right to access freight rail lines. That ultimately led to a settlement agreement between Amtrak, the host railroads, and the Port of Mobile. Second, Amtrak won a $178 million Federal Railroad Administration CRISI grant that will pay for track improvements. Third, Louisiana has agreed to cover its share of operating costs.

But Amtrak has made no progress in key areas that remain roadblocks to the restoration of Gulf Coast service.

Amtrak lacks the necessary operating agreements with Mississippi and the City of Mobile. Alabama has never had an interest in supporting Amtrak service. And now it appears that Mississippi and Mobile are having second thoughts.

Can you blame them? Amtrak projected initial Gulf Coast annual ridership of 56,700, which works out to an average of just 39 passengers per train. After five years, Amtrak projects the Gulf Coast service would carry 72,200 people, or 49 per train. Based on Amtrak’s own figures, Gulf Coast service would lose as much as $373 per passenger, which is four times more than any other state-supported route.

Knox Ross, chairman of the Southern Rail Commission, questions Amtrak’s ridership assumptions and says they’re way too low. He also says Mississippi is close to signing an operating agreement, and that the state’s transportation officials are behind the Gulf Coast service.

Make no mistake: Amtrak routes should not have to turn a profit. But there should be some rational business case for route expansion. Based on Amtrak’s numbers, there isn’t one for Gulf Coast service.

Despite 14 months of talks, Amtrak also hasn’t been able to reach an agreement with Mobile regarding a lease of city owned land for a layover track and station platform.

The lack of agreements prompted sharp criticism from the STB during this week’s public hearing on delays in starting Gulf Coast passenger service. Board Chairman Martin J. Oberman, who has negotiated leases as a Chicago alderman and as Metra chairman, said it wouldn’t take 14 months to reach a platform and layover track deal with Mobile if there really was a desire to do so.

Ross says a lease agreement could come in a matter of weeks, if not sooner. And he insists that there’s plenty of support in all three states to get Gulf Coast service rolling.

Yet Mobile, it seems, wants nothing to do with Amtrak. You can trace this back to Amtrak’s attempt to barge its way on to the former L&N main line without first securing host railroad support. At the time, CSX argued that without capacity improvements the daily Amtrak trains would snarl its freight traffic and gum up rail service to the fast-growing Port of Mobile. State port officials quickly backed CSX and opposed the revival of passenger service.

Trains Columnist Bill Stephens

Woe be it to anyone who messes with the port. It’s the economic engine for the Mobile area, and 20,000 direct jobs depend on activity at the docks. Although the port congestion concerns were overblown, the false perception still lingers that the port and scheduled passenger trains can’t possibly coexist. “It has been and will continue to be of utmost importance that the return of Amtrak to the region does not impede operations at the Port, which is vital for the economy in all 67 of Alabama’s Counties,” Sen. Katie Boyd Britt, R-Ala., wrote in a Feb. 9 letter to the STB.

The lesson from all this? Amtrak should cite a lack of local support and pull the plug on the proposed Mobile-New Orleans service. And then it should focus its ambitious expansion efforts on routes that states and communities actually want.

By pulling out now, Amtrak would dodge a potential boondoggle. An embarrassing combination of low ridership and steep losses per passenger would hand Amtrak’s opponents ammunition. And then the anti-Amtrak crowd will cite the Gulf Coast as an example of why taxpayers shouldn’t support Amtrak expansion anywhere. Plus, backing out would avoid wasting millions of CRISI dollars on freight railroad improvements that probably would never benefit many passengers.

Not all is lost. Amtrak has proven an important point by pressing Gulf Coast service: Host railroads must cooperate and not unduly delay new or expanded passenger service, lest they be put on the hot seat at the STB. It’s time for Amtrak to declare victory in the Gulf and move on to new routes with better ridership potential, enthusiastic support, and a higher chance of success.

You can reach Bill Stephens at and follow him on LinkedIn and X @bybillstephens

Note: Updated at 2:14 p.m. Central with comment from Knox Ross, chairman of the Southern Rail Commission.

4 thoughts on “Amtrak should bail out on proposed Gulf Coast service: Analysis

  1. Supposedly Amtrak has a shortage of equipment and can’t find enough cars to meet the demand of some of its existing trains. But with only 40 passengers per train they would need only one car for the New Orleans Mobile service?

  2. This is why the biggest “bang for the buck” for any new Amtrak service is to invest in existing routes which are underserved, like New York-Atlanta, New York-Florida, New York-Chicago, Seattle-Los Angeles, etc. When service is doubled, ridership more than doubles because you’re giving people more options. Also, the infrastructure and personnel cost is minimal compared to launching a new service. This is what the Mobile debacle shows. With all these new services on the drawing board, and state support required for many of them and local municipalities required to assist in getting funding for stations (not covered by the IIJA), the likelihood of this situation (Mobile-New Orleans) being repeated over and over is almost assured.

  3. Amtrak ceased service on the Sunset Limited east of NOLA after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and for years afterward told prospective passengers the train wasn’t running due to “infrastructure damage” even though CSX was running freight over the route within weeks. Amtrak should fib some more and pull out of this current deal claiming infrastructure damage. The great unwashed masses will believe anything as history has shown. The great irony: Amtrak had to be strong armed into extending the Sunset and couldn’t drop it fast enough even though it turned Jacksonville into a hub for connecting services. Now they are trying to strong arm the railroads and states. Turnabout may be fair play but it doesn’t always work.

  4. One could wonder what the city of Mobile will like if STB delays any approvals for the inland port setup from the port of Mobile?

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