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$100,000 of your tax money to study putting back what was there just a few short years ago

August 16th, 2012

News item in the form of a press release from the Federal Railroad Administration:

Thursday, August 16, 2012

FRA Provides Grant to Study the Return of Amtrak Passenger Rail Service Between Birmingham, Montgomery and Mobile

Mobile, Ala. – The Federal Railroad Administration today announced it has obligated $100,000 in response to an application from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs to study the restoration of Amtrak passenger rail service between Birmingham, Montgomery and Mobile.

“Rail has the potential to ease congestion, spur economic growth and create jobs” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.  “President Obama’s support for an America built to last is putting people back to work across the country building railroads, roads, bridges and other projects that will mean better, safer transportation and a strong economic foundation for years to come.”

The study will include a cost and ridership analysis, stakeholder outreach and planning to assess the feasibility of service between Birmingham and Montgomery.  Birmingham and Montgomery local governments will contribute an additional $100,000 total for the study. The results of the analyses will determine whether it is feasible to also extend the study to Mobile and proceed with the preparation of a Service Development Plan, environmental review and preliminary design.

The anticipated passenger rail service would connect to the existing Alabama portion of the Amtrak Crescent Route at Birmingham and possibly to a future route between Mobile and Florida, now under discussion among Amtrak and several Gulf Coast mayors.  That service, previously known as the Amtrak Sunset Limited was discontinued in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina.

“Solid planning and thorough analysis is the foundation for successful rail projects,” said Deputy Federal Railroad Administrator Karen Hedlund in a speech to the Gulf Coast Mayors Summit.  “Rail corridors rarely stop at state lines, and it takes a team effort of governors, mayors, legislators, advocacy groups and policy makers coming together to establish a clear vision.”

The funding is from the Omnibus Appropriations Act, 2009.

The Federal Railroad Administration and its 32 state partners continue to make significant progress on High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program-related projects across the country. With $10.1 billion in federal funding, they’re moving forward with 153 projects, laying the foundation for a 21st century passenger rail network.

[End of press release]

Make that $100,000 of federal money, and another $100,000 of Birmingham and Montgomery money to talk about restoring the Gulf Breeze service.

Many will remember the late Gulf Breeze, which ran as a section of the Crescent between New York City and Birmingham, Alabama, and was then split into its own all-coach train for the rest of the run from Birmingham to Mobile, Alabama. The train, which was originally championed by United Rail Passenger Alliance and related groups, lasted from 1989 until 1995, when it became victim to the Amtrak self-inflicted downsizing which cut many routes from daily to tri-weekly service and other aberations, and outright eliminated some routes.

The service was a particular favorite of URPA’s the late Byron Nordberg, whose wife was from Alabama, and her family home was served by the nearby new service. After the approval of the service by the Amtrak Board of Directors, URPA was asked for suggestions for a name for the new train. This writer submitted a list of about a half a dozen names, which contained the Gulf Breeze and Red Mountain as two of the choices. Ultimately, the Gulf Breeze was chosen.

The Gulf Breeze was short, and had no food and beverage service south of Birmingham. During the short life of the Gulf Breeze, the Sunset Limited was extended east from New Orleans to Miami, and Mobile, Alabama went from no trains to a daily Gulf Breeze and tri-weekly Sunset Limited. The ghastly Mobile station, originally built by the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, was demolished after being mostly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, which also ended Sunset Limited service east of New Orleans.

The original Gulf, Mobile & Ohio ornate passenger station still stands in Mobile, but has been disconnected from any live track. To use the station again, a new station lead would have to be constructed from what are now CSX tracks.

The Gulf Breeze, even though a bare-bones service, was popular after its introduction, and continued to have decent ridership up until the end. It’s striking it will cost $200,000 in consulting fees to figure out putting a train back where it was successful before in very recent history is a good idea.

Mobile was also served after the demise of the Gulf Breeze by the Gulf Coast Limited for a few years, as a companion train to the Sunset Limited between New Orleans and Mobile, making stops at many of the popular resort and beach towns along the Gulf of Mexico CSX/former L&N route, originally served by the Gulf Wind (which was the inspiration for the Gulf Breeze name). Alas, the Gulf Coast Limited, like the Gulf Breeze, was a state supported service (a combination of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama), and when Amtrak swumg its meataxe only a couple of years after the inauguration of the Gulf Coast Limited, it, too, became history.

America deserves better, and the people and visitors to the Gulf Coast deserve better, too. Somebody, somewhere, needs to establish what will be a permanent service, which is loved and admired by its operator, instead of a constant kiss-and-run service which seems to be the hallmark of Amtrak on the Gulf Coast. After all, the Sunset Limited only lasted 12 years, the Gulf Breeze lasted six years, and the life of the Gulf Coast Limited was measured in months. (Further disclosure: this writer also helped plan and conduct the inaugural train of the Gulf Coast Limited on a very long, very hot summer day.) – J. Bruce Richardson


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