American Railroads

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Location: Middleburg (Jacksonville), Florida, United States

Published in Trains magazine, Railfan & Railroad, Passenger Train Journal

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Sunset's future remains in doubt

By Leo King

As AR reported on Friday, Amtrak’s new president and CEO Alexander Kummant and members of the Southern Rapid Rail Transit Commission (SRRTC) met on Friday in an attempt to restart Amtrak's Sunset Limited service east of New Orleans. Nothing has changed yet.
They met in the Amtrak headquarters offices at Union Station in Washington D.C.
SRRTC attendees included Karen Parsons, SRRTC Executive Director, Col. Tom Atkinson, Louisiana transportation director, and Roy Woodruff, SRRTC Chairman. Amtrak employees included Kummant, vice-president Joe McHugh, Congressional liason officer Frances Bourne, Drew Galloway, and Amtrak West chief Gil Mallory.
Parsons said, “Several issues were covered, including new service between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, new service between New Orleans and Mobile, and the Sunset Limited.”
The group has governmental and civic leaders in top posts, and they come from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
She added, “Resumption of the Sunset Limited service east of New Orleans remains problematic. Amtrak is concerned about the state of repair of the passenger terminals on the Gulf Coast after the Hurricane [Katrina] and the lack of capacity of the track to accommodate both growing freight volumes and passenger rail.”
Eastbound Amtrak train No. 2 has not traveled east of New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina devastated the region more than one year ago, nor has No. 1, its westbound counterpart.
The train currently originates three times a week in Los Angeles, and in New Orleans the other three days.
Amtrak will brief the SRRTC on October 20 at 7:00 p.m. in Meridian, Miss. on operations and cost for intercity regional service east of New Orleans. Meridian, Miss. Mayor John Robert Smith, a former Amtrak board chairman, is an SRRTC member.
“The SRRTC is expected to do what it can to support and promote this initiative for the good of the entire Gulf Coast,” she said.
Amtrak has been silent, so far, and would only say that when a decision is made they will publish a press release.
Parsons noted, “On-time performance was only at 9 percent, and thus they are not beating down the door to resume service.”
On another matter, Parsons said, “We briefed Amtrak on the status of funding for track upgrades for the proposed New Orleans to Baton Rouge daily service. The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development and the Louisiana Recovery Authority feel this is a high priority for recovery and job access.”
The SRRTC, she explained, “is completing its feasibility study on the segment between New Orleans and Mobile. We have identified $260 million in projects to allow for the growth in freight and consistent passenger trains speeds of 79 mph for a 20-year build out. The difficulty to be overcome is the current politics to move the corridor north of I-10 or reroute the existing trains to the New Orleans Gateway on Norfolk Southern track.”
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, R, “is directing the Mississippi DOT to complete a feasibility study of those options. The governor and interested parties are working to convert the CSX rail right-of-way to a four-lane highway to support condominium and casino development on the Gulf Coast.”
Language in a Senate bill that would have permitted that was removed from a spending bill in September.
“While the SRRTC has taken a stand in support of keeping the CSX track for passenger use, the dollars needed to sustain new daily operations over this route must come mainly from the Mississippi state legislature, and capital needed to construct improvements are competitive and largely based on Mississippi clout in the Senate,” Parson said. She added, “Well-funded capital improvements and more frequent and reliable service could be a boon to land development on the coast.
“Our charge, therefore, seems to be advocating against the demise of passenger service and in fact, arguing for the opposite, more frequent passenger service with Mississippi constituents in hopes they command the attention of those that control the dollars. It is a slippery slope.”

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