Budget Bill Gives Boost to Efforts to Restore Amtrak Service Along the

Gulf Coast proponents of restoring Amtrak service are looking toward a provision of the recently approved federal budget as a cause for optimism.

The $1.3 trillion omnibus bill contains $20 million for a grant program aimed at initiating, restoring or enhancing passenger rail service.

An aide to Florida Senator Bill Nelson said the program is competitive but was created with the Gulf Coast service in mind.

The Southern Rail Commission said the budget bill contained $592 million for the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements grant program, which has $35.5 million to restore lost passenger service.

The Gulf Coast Rail Service Working Group, a partnership between the Federal Railroad Administration, Southern Rail Commission and 28 cities, regional planning councils and state departments of transportation last July sent a report to Congress that urges creation of daily Amtrak service between New Orleans and Orlando.

The route was served by Amtrak’s Sunset Limited until that service was suspended following extensive damage to the route by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The report estimated the cost of service restoration at $115 million, but track owner CSX contends it would be $2 billion.

The working group has expressed doubt about the CSX figure but said it could not validate it without knowing the methodology behind the estimate.

Since the report was completed, CSX has offered for sale the track between Jacksonville and Pensacola, Florida, that Amtrak once used.

Knox Ross, vice chairman of the Southern Rail Commission, is optimistic that if CSX sells the track that could boost efforts to restore passenger service to the Florida panhandle.

“(State and federal regulators) could make the passenger train a condition of sale,” Ross said. “That they have to maintain the line to at least current standard, and that they have to allow the (passenger) train.”

The Southern Rail Commission is also seeking twice-daily rail service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

“We’ve got a short-term opportunity to get something done,” he said.

One stumbling block to service restoration could be the lack of positive train control on the line between Pensacola to Orlando.

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