Gulf Coast Service: This Time It Actually Is Different


For only 12 years -- between 1993 and 2005 -- Amtrak operated the nation’s only coast-to-coast passenger train. Running more than 2,700 miles between Orlando and Los Angeles, the Sunset Limitedconnected big cities including Orlando, New Orleans, Houston, Tucson and Los Angeles, with small towns such as Crestview, Florida, Sanderson, Texas, and Benson, Arizona.

Unfortunately, 2005’s Hurricane Katrina caused significant damage to the railroad line along the Gulf Coast, forcing Amtrak to suspend service east of New Orleans. And although the line has since been repaired, Amtrak has yet to restore the service.

But thanks to Congress, that might soon change. The House’s recently passed passenger rail bill includes the creation of a working group to evaluate restoration of service between New Orleans and Orlando. This group, which will consist of representatives from Amtrak, state governments, relevant freight railroads and other regional transportation organizations, will issue a report within nine months detailing options for restoration of service as well as potential costs of restoration. These recommendations would then, in turn, be considered by Congress for further action.

We at NARP applaud the inclusion of the Gulf Coast study in the House bill. Since 2005, we have consistently called for restoration of service between New Orleans and Orlando. Our members have made the case for its renewal to their state and local governments, and we have made the case here in Washington. And we’re willing to make that case even when Amtrak itself has been reluctant to do so.
In 2013, for example, then-President and CEO Ross Capon told the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure that Amtrak’s cost estimates for restoring service were likely too high, and that the real cost of restoring service would be much lower than commonly believed.

However, we understand that some of our fellow advocates might be skeptical. After all, the 2008 Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act also required a study on the restoration of New Orleans-Orlando service, and six years later, there’s still no train. While we understand this skepticism, we would also say that there’s good reason for optimism.

First, we should note the big differences between the 2008 and 2015 studies. The 2008 legislation charged Amtrak with the study’s conduct, and had loose requirements for outside input. The 2015 legislation gives control of the study to an independent working group that includes Amtrak as well as other private and public stakeholders. By including other entities in the working group, the 2015 bill ensures that the subsequent study will more broadly reflect local and regional interests. We’d also note that the 2015 bill calls for a broad consideration of all potential service options, including expanded service, whereas the 2008 bill was more narrowly tailored towards restoration of the pre-2005 Sunset.

Most importantly, we know that the demand is there. In its yearly survey of transit ridership, the American Public Transportation Association found that Americans made 10.8 billion trips on public transit in 2014 -- the highest number of any year since 1957. We’ve long argued that long-distance trains like the Sunset Limited are an integral part of our nation’s public transit network; by connecting smaller communities with larger cities, these trains offer Americans an alternative to car travel that they might not otherwise have. The demand for passenger rail service is real: we hope that the House’s authorization of the Gulf Coast study represents a step towards recognizing that demand.

Although the House bill has not yet been considered by the Senate, we are optimistic that there will be action in the near future. While we can expect that the House bill will be amended before final passage, we remain hopeful that the Senate will join the House in supporting the new Gulf Coast study, and we encourage members to let their feelings on this topic be known to their Congressional delegations. Ten years has been long enough: it is time to bring the trains back.

Image courtesy of Amtrak