Report shows favor towards restoring passenger train line along the Gulf Coast.

Yesterday’s delivery to Congress of the Gulf Coast Passenger Rail Working Group’s Final Report by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) provides positive endorsement for the Southern Rail Commission’s long standing recommendation that passenger rail service be restored across America’s Gulf Coast. The Report details anticipated capital costs of less than $112M, plus estimated $5M for project development and planning. The culmination of more than 18 months of dedicated service on the part of the Gulf Coast Working Group (GCWG) appointees, including Amtrak, CSX, FRA, SRC, and over 30 regional stakeholders, the Report is the result of comprehensive, thoughtful analysis and unbiased consideration of participants’ input.

The GCWG was created by Congress to study this service in Section 11304 of Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act. This provision stated that FRA is to “convene a working group to evaluate the restoration of intercity rail passenger service in the Gulf Coast region between New Orleans, Louisiana, and Orlando, Florida.” The Southern Rail Commission was appointed by name in the FAST Act to be part of this group.

“We are encouraged that FRA has found that rail service can begin quickly and at a reasonable cost. The SRC is grateful for the unified political and grassroots support the restoration of Gulf Coast passenger rail service has received from Mayors to Governors to the gulf south's Congressional Delegation,” said Greg White, Chairman of the SRC. “Since 2012, the base of this support has consistently expressed that daily passenger service is essential for the economic resiliency of America’s gulf coast.”

All SRC members are especially pleased to see this Report’s recommendations regarding passenger service for the Gulf Coast, and give full support to the Report’s consideration of safety for all passenger rail users, including Positive Train Control and other recommended safety measures.

The GCWG recommended two preferred service options: daily long-distance train service between Orlando and New Orleans with estimated annual operating need of $5.48M, and a daily regional train between New Orleans and Mobile with an estimated annual operating need of $4M.

The Report outlines a number of capital improvements and operating costs associated with launching these services, and some of this funding could be acquired through new federal rail programs such as the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) program for capital expenses and from the Restoration and Enhancement Grant (REG) Program for operating support. The SRC has also received significant interest and initial commitments from private sector partners across the gulf coast interested in contributing to the rail project.

Also noted in the Report, the SRC and FRA are currently providing $1.33M in grant funds to communities in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama for station area planning and rail safety improvements. These communities have contributed their own cash match, resulting in more than $2.6M in projects underway in preparation for service restoration.

Attached as a part of the FRA report is a letter from the Southern Rail Commission that addresses what we consider unjustifiable cost demands by CSX (www.southernrailcommission.org/news/fra-gcwg-report). The FRA and SRC have diligently worked to address the purported obstacles to restoring service that CSX identified. Recognizing that issues and details remain to be negotiated and resolved, the GCWG Report recommends continued coordination and collaboration among Working Group partners. The SRC remains committed to being a part of these ongoing efforts.

“Congress has identified this route as being of high importance and interest for the public," said Greg White. “Continued investments in our national passenger rail system are vital as our society becomes increasingly mobile and we look for ways to improve access to skilled workers, jobs, and new opportunities for economic development. The SRC is committed to ensuring the Gulf Coast region of our country is not left out.”

Contributed Report