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Tallahassee Democrat Newspaper on Amtrak's Gulf Coast Service Plan

25 Jul 2009 1:40 PM | Jackson McQuigg (Administrator)

July 25, 2009

Rail service could return for Tallahassee residents under Amtrak proposal

By Dave Hodges
Democrat Business Editor

The train made perfect sense for Tallahassee retiree Shadow Hibbard’s regular trips to Arizona.

“I go to Arizona and work on a Nature Conservancy nature preserve. I don’t drive at night, and I don’t use the interstates. I use the back roads. It takes me five days to get there,” she said.

When Amtrak’s Sunset Limited made that run from Tallahassee, she’d board the train Tuesday night and be in Benson, Ariz., in 48 hours.

No Amtrak trains have served Tallahassee since August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina caused catastrophic damage to the railroad corridor between New Orleans and Mobile, Ala.

Rail travel for Tallahassee residents could return under any of three options that Amtrak has proposed in a report the national passenger rail service was required to produce under the 2008 Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act.

Though the tracks were repaired and CSX resumed freight service, Amtrak passenger service has remained suspended “because of the costs and challenges associated with restoring service,” Amtrak’s report says.

Amtrak officials initially evaluated 12 alternatives for restoring service between New Orleans and Orlando. Those were narrowed to three preferred options, based on projected ridership, revenue, operating expense and operating lost.

The first is restoring the Sunset Limited as it was before, with trains traveling three times weekly between Orlando and Los Angeles.

Option 2 is extending the daily City of New Orleans service, a train that travels between Chicago and New Orleans. That service would continue into Florida and terminate in Orlando.

Option 3 is implementing daily stand-alone overnight service between New Orleans and Orlando.

Each option assumes that the 19 stations between New Orleans and Orlando would be served by the trains.

Option 1, the return of the Sunset Limited, would require the least expense in capital costs and mobilization, at $32.7 million.

Amtrak projects $6 million a year in passenger revenues, but also the least in annual ridership at 53,300 passengers. The Sunset Limited service would have an anticipated $10.8 million in direct costs, resulting in an annual operating loss of $4.8 million, the lowest deficit of the three.

Fred Wise, manager of the Florida Department of Transportation’s Rail Office, said the Sunset Limited struggled for another reason. “They were constantly plagued by poor on-time performance.” Another shortcoming was the limits on service — only three trains a week. That limited passengers’ travel options.

Nonetheless, Wise said FDOT is encouraged by the report. “We view this as a very favorable development and we are pleased our Congressional delegation led the effort to have this studied,” he added.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari acknowledged that the train schedule will contribute to consumer acceptance. “I think it goes to the frequency of service,” he said. “It has been our experience that daily service is easier for the passengers to use than less-than-daily service.”

Establishing daily service under Amtrak’s Option 2 would necessitate capital and mobilization costs of $57.6 to $96.6 million to bring the City of New Orleans train into Florida. The annual passenger revenue of $9.2 million is the highest of the three alternatives, as is the annual ridership projection of 96,100.

Operating expenses of $20.9 million a year would result in a loss on the route of $11.7 million.

Option 3, the daily stand-alone train running between New Orleans and Orlando, would have capital and mobilization costs of $57.6 to $96.6 million and the lowest passenger revenue of the three at $5.6 million. The operating loss would be $18.4 million a year.

The capital and mobilization costs include $10.7 million to restore the 13 stations where service was suspended. Some require remodeling to bring them into compliance with the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Due to hurricane damage, the Sanford station would require $3.2 million for demolition and reconstruction, according to Amtrak.

Based on the anticipated lead time, re-establishing the Sunset Limited would take a minimum of 20 months from the date funding is made available. The other two options are about four years away from implementation because purchase of additional equipment would be required, Amtrak said.

Whatever the option, Mark Lewellyn, chair of the Economic Development Council’s Transportation & Logistics Roundtable, is optimistic about the outcome.

“I am sure it will be a good thing for the community,” he said, adding that he is looking forward to passenger service starting again.

Also reviewing the options is railroad and transportation company CSX, which operates freight service along the corridor. Spokesman Gary Sease said the company advised Amtrak officials that when the rail agency is ready to resume the service, CSX is ready to take those trains and work them into the schedule.

CSX, however, will examine the other two options for more frequent service to determine how that activity can be accommodated, Sease said.

“We have a good relationship with Amtrak and a very good relationship with FDOT,” said Sease, noting CSX’s home base in Jacksonville and extensive operations in Florida. “The state of Florida and its transportation needs are very important to us.”

It is now the job of federal and state policy makers to decide if the passenger service should be restored and if so, which option is preferred. Also needed is the additional funding for capital and operating expenses that the plan would require.

“Once these actions are taken, Amtrak will move quickly to initiate the steps required for service restoration,” the report concludes.

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