Don’t be seduced by the Amtrak impulse
Imagine racing along the Mississippi countryside at 155 mph headed from Mobile to New Orleans on a Sunday morning on your way to watch the New Orleans Saints play at the Superdome, which is only a 10-minute walk from the Crescent City’s Union Passenger Terminal.
Sounds cool, right? You can enjoy the festivities of a Sunday in New Orleans, maybe enjoy a few drinks after the game in the French Quarter and be back to Alabama by 10 p.m.
The possibility of that fantasy becoming a reality is decades away at a minimum. Yet, it seems to be part of the sales pitch of bringing Amtrak back to Mobile.
Earlier this week, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Walt Maddox called on his November general election opponent Gov. Kay Ivey to allocate $5.3 million over the next three years to bring Amtrak service back to Alabama’s Gulf Coast.
Up until 2005, Amtrak served Mobile with its Sunset Limited line, a route that stretched from Los Angeles to Orlando. After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Amtrak terminated the Sunset Limited line in New Orleans.
Pre-2005 Amtrak service in Mobile was awful. There were not a lot of takers. It made middle-of-the-night and early-morning stops every other day for passengers headed in either direction, with only an automated ticket kiosk in an awkward spot in downtown Mobile. It was rarely on time, sometimes late by multiple hours.
There is no reason to believe that will be any different if Amtrak were to restore Mobile service.
For a route like the one that operates in the Northeast Corridor from Washington, D.C. to Boston, there are multiple tracks with overpasses that allow it to avoid railroad crossing in small towns where a passenger train would otherwise be forced to slow to a crawl before resuming speed.
There’s no existing infrastructure for a “bullet train” to operate between Alabama and anywhere in 2018. A trip to New Orleans from Mobile would require stops in Pascagoula, Biloxi, Gulfport and Bay St. Louis, Miss. Before arriving in New Orleans. That trip (assuming everything was on time) took three hours and 20 minutes.
The trip is two hours and 10 minutes by automobile. Most people would probably opt for the drive and avoid the unreliability of 2018 Amtrak train service. But, if you are trying to avoid driving, MegaBus service will get you there in two hours and 45 minutes for as little as $14.
How could it possibly be cost effective for money to be spent on establishing rail service given these facts?
Traveling in the other direction was even worse. For a trip to Pensacola, Fla. from Mobile, roughly a 45-minute drive down I-10, the departure time was at 2 a.m. CT. It arrived in Pensacola at 4:30 a.m. CT, after a stop in Atmore.
The question for these civic leaders championing the idea Amtrak service restoration on the Gulf Coast is who is going to use it? Is there even enough of a demand for such a service?
Otherwise, bringing Amtrak back to this part of Alabama is just doing so to do so. Without high-speed rail infrastructure, passenger train travel is a novelty for tourists, those afraid to fly and those commuting between northeastern U.S. metropolitan areas.
You also cannot ignore the sad history of the Sunset Limited in Alabama. In 1993, 47 passengers died, and another 100 or so were injured in an accident at a rail crossing over Bayou Canot just north of Mobile. Even though that was 25 years ago, for some in Mobile, that memory is fresh enough to deter them from using Amtrak.
Granted, $5.3 million is a rounding error for the overall expenditures of the state of Alabama, but it would be much better used if put toward highway improvements.
With the daily logjams being the norm on I-565 west of Huntsville, on I-65 south of Birmingham and I-10 headed in and out of the Wallace Tunnel in Mobile, putting taxpayer money toward an antiquated means of transit like Amtrak’s modern passenger rail travel would be a disgrace.
Kay Ivey is smart to sit this one out.