A Daily Train for the Gulf Coast?

There are some notable gaps in Amtrak’s long-distance routes that make taking the train from Point A to Point B inconvenient or expensive or both. The most obvious example is travel from New Orleans to Florida. This was a do-able trip until 2005 when Hurricane Katrina wiped out a lot of track east of New Orleans. The track was repaired literally within months, but—alas—the three-days-a-week Sunset Limited service has never been restored.
For the past dozen years, the only practical option for travelers going between New Orleans and anywhere in Florida has been by air. A rental car could get you from New Orleans to Orlando, but it would take about 11 hours of actual driving. Certainly the train is the most comfortable way to go, but the first night would be aboard the Crescent to Washington, connecting with the Silver Star for another overnight ride south to Orlando. And the fare? About $750 for sleepers.
No wonder there has been increasing agitation for restoring that portion of the Sunset Limited’s route east of New Orleans, passing through Mobile, Alabama, and Florida’s capital city, Tallahassee, en route to Jacksonville and Orlando.
To that end, the Southern Rail Commission was formed to study how best to bring passenger rail back to the Gulf Coast. The commission came up with no less than five possibilities. Amtrak then generated ridership estimates for each and those were finally made public near the end of last year.

 The best option—which actually would increase frequency between New Orleans and Orlando from three times a week to daily service—would be achieved by extending the route of trains 58 and 59, the City of New Orleans. It would become a two-night trip from Chicago through New Orleans to Orlando. As attractive as that sounds, and despite all the enthusiasm from public officials representing cities and towns along the proposed Gulf Coast route, the new service is by no means a slam dunk.
The fact is, the Sunset Limited’s three-times-a-week service was better than nothing, but not by much. The biggest problem was an awful on-time performance—hardly a surprise for a 2,800-mile route, two-thirds of which was over track owned by Union Pacific, considered to be the most Amtrak-unfriendly of all the major freight railroads. Poor on time performance and the three-times-a-week schedule had a detrimental effect on ridership and that, of course, hurt the train’s bottom line, already adversely affected by still more questionable Amtrak accounting.
The big question—in fact, it’s virtually the only question—is what’s the proposed service going to cost and who’s going to pick up the difference between that number and income from the fare box. There are some positive signs. The mayors of all those towns along the proposed route are on board. Mississippi’s governor, Phil Bryant, is on board. A number of the members of Congress—including some Republicans, no less!—seem favorable. And NARP members turned out in force to greet a special train following that very route.
What’s next? I guess it will be when Amtrak says they’re ready to run the City of New Orleans every day all the way to Orlando, but the estimated subsidy is going to be X-dollars. The good news is that the money would come from four states: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, plus no doubt all the cities and towns along the way would be asked to make a contribution. There’s even logic to expecting some private capital because a daily train would certainly provide a push to local economies all along the way.
The thing is, it shouldn’t be this complicated! What if Florida says it won’t participate? Would the other three states pick up Florida’s share. Not likely. And that’s why Amtrak should be supported with an adequate subsidy from the federal government. Better yet, a dedicated source of funding Amtrak can count on year after year. Clean. Simple. Makes sense.