AL: ‘Milestone day’: Mobile board approves Amtrak project; more work before Gulf Coast line re-start

May 9, 2024
With unanimous support Monday, the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment granted a special exception to allow Amtrak to build a passenger train depot at the foot of Government Street, directly across Water Street from the Exploreum.

For the first time in over four years, Amtrak went before a Mobile public body requesting support for its Gulf Coast passenger rail project.

It went about as good as Amtrak officials could have hoped.

With unanimous support Monday, the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment granted a special exception to allow Amtrak to build a passenger train depot at the foot of Government Street, directly across Water Street from the Exploreum.

“It’s a milestone day for Amtrak, the Southern Rail Commission, and the City of Mobile,” said Ray Lang, vice-president of state supported services at Amtrak.

CSX, Port support

The board’s vote came without much comment from its members. It followed only supportive statements and comments from the public, and a joint appearance of support from former Gulf Coast rail opponents – the Alabama State Port Authority and CSX, which owns and operates the freight line through Mobile.

The comments from CSX and the Port were notable given that both sides are currently engaged in litigation brought by Amtrak that is before the U.S. Surface Transportation Board. Norfolk Southern, which owns and operates portions of the rail line in Louisiana, is also part of the case.

The parties involved in the STB case reached a confidential settlement in November 2022, but much of the progress in getting the passenger trains rolling along the Gulf Coast has been stalled for months, drawing recent frustrations from members of the STB and a request for progress updates. The most recent update occurred last week, in which the parties involved in the case believe the approvals in Mobile will be finalized before the end of May.

“Having the CSX and the Port (in attendance) is a big thing,” said Knox Ross, chairman of the Southern Rail Commission. “Everyone is on the same page. That makes a big difference, and it shows that we are able to, in the end, find something that works for everybody.”

Representatives with the Port and CSX said they supported the project largely due to the inclusion of a 3,000-foot layover track that will be constructed around the same time as the depot. The track will allow Amtrak trains to arrive to Mobile off the CSX mainline and avoiding potential freight disruptions at the Port of Mobile.

“It will advance the implementation of the agreement that allows all parties, including the freight operators and the Port of Mobile to operate a freight rail and passenger rail both safely and efficiently once the infrastructure is complete,” said Jane Covington, a representative with CSX. “From the freight perspective, we are in agreement of this location with the associated infrastructure.”

Permanent structure

The depot is considered a “temporary” or “interim” rail stop or platform in downtown Mobile and will be built to serve a twice-daily passenger rail connection between Mobile and New Orleans with four stops in coastal Mississippi. According to documents filed with the city, the train will depart Mobile at 6:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., and arrive to the city at 11:18 a.m. and 9:14 p.m.

The platform, according to city documents, will be 106-feet long and 12-feet wide, and will be approximately 1,400 square feet. The project will include the installation of station identification signage and solar lighting.

Lang said he believes Mobile will be interested in building a more permanent structure after the service is restarted, but that funding is the biggest issue.

He said some cities coordinate the design and construction of their train stations as “notable” structures for their Amtrak service. Ski resorts and universities have served as landlords before, and Mobile city officials have pondered a potential train stop at its future passenger airport terminal under construction at the Brookley Aeroplex.

“We’ll work with the city and stakeholders on a permanent structure,” Lang said. “Communities all over the country tend to build important and notable structures after Amtrak service starts. This (approval by the Board of Adjustments) was meant to allow us to begin service.”

Mobile council

But before more permanent train station talks can begin, Amtrak will need to get more approvals from Mobile city officials this month.

The Mobile City Council will be asked to approve a lease agreement, and a subsidy to support the first three years of operations. Those votes are expected to take place sometime this month.

The depot currently sits on city-owned property adjacent to Cooper Riverside Park. According to Amtrak’s application with the city, there will be 45 parking spaces on site after the depot is constructed.

Lang said he was confident in the council’s support saying that the city had previously approved the subsidy in the past. The City Council voted 6-1 on Feb. 4, 2020 – the last time Amtrak went before a Mobile city board – to dedicate $3.048 million in funds.

The same amount is still being sought from Mobile, which the council will reconsider later this month. Only three of the council members from that 2020 council remain, and one of them – Councilman Joel Daves – has been among the chief critics of the Gulf Coast rail project. Another councilman, Ben Reynolds, has expressed concerns with Amtrak in general. It takes five of the council’s seven members to support both requests.

Costs, timelines

Timelines and fares are still not set, and Lang declined to provide any loose starting date on when the first train might roll between Mobile and New Orleans, recognizing the votes still needed by the city council.

Lang said the fares will include a variety of prices that depend on factors like proximity to purchasing a ticket before departure to the time of the year when the train trip is occurring.

Marc Magliari, spokesman for Amtrak, noted the most recent fare established on a state-supported route between St. Paul, Minn., and Chicago, via Milwaukee. That service includes a coach fare at $41 each way between the two cities, with discounts available for children ages 2-12, students, seniors, veterans, and military personnel and their families.

Magliari said a fare will not be established for the Gulf Coast until a date is identified for it to restart, and Lang hesitated to say when an estimated restart of the service will occur. Amtrak, after the 2022 settlement, had initially said that service between Mobile and New Orleans would begin by late 2023, but the timeline has been repeatedly pushed back.

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For now, Amtrak officials are attempting to move through their checklist to get the project going after years of negotiations, incremental progress, and difficulties since Hurricane Katrina’s destruction halted passenger rail activity along the Gulf Coast in 2005.

“The project will restore intercity passenger rail service in Mobile after nearly 20 years,” said Sara Benson, senior manager of facilities development with Amtrak.

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