Ghost train: will Amtrak ever return to Pensacola?

Today the Pensacola City Council, sitting as the Committee of the Whole, unanimously voted for a resolution “requesting Amtrak to restore Sunset Limited rail passenger service in Florida”:

Be it resolved by the City Council of the City of Pensacola, Florida … [t]hat the City Council strongly supports and joins in the efforts of other communities across the Gulf Coast and Florida Panhandle regions to request Amtrak to restore and reestablish passenger rail service and the Sunset Limited route from New Orleans, Louisiana to Jacksonville/Sanford, Florida as part of Amtrak’s investment in Florida.

The Escambia County Commission and the City of Milton have passed similar resolutions recently.

As many will recall, Sunset Limited is the Amtrak route that, before Hurricane Katrina, spanned the United States — from Los Angeles to Jacksonville. It was the only transcontinental rail service in the country, and it was the only route that served Pensacola and the Florida Gulf Coast.

Hurricane Katrina damaged several spans of track east of Corpus Christi. The tracks were quickly repaired and service restored to New Orleans, but no further. Pensacola is one of thirteen Amtrak stations that have sat dormant for almost seven years.

As part of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, Congress demanded that Amtrak deliver a plan for restoring rail service to the Gulf Coast.

In that report, Amtrak presented three options, with a financial analysis of each option:

  1. Restoring the tri-weekly Sunset Limited service as it was before Hurricane Katrina. “This option ranked well in the aggregate, with considerably lower capital and operating costs than the other options due to its limited, tri-weekly frequency and the fact that it would not require purchase of additional equipment (which also gave it a shorter implementation time).”
  2. Extending the daily City of New Orleans service, which currently runs from Chicago to New Orleans, all the way to Orlando. “Combining the Chicago-to-New Orleans and New Orleans-to-Orlando segments creates potential for operational issues due to increased trip length (1,694 route miles), but this potential is estimated to be significantly lower than the operational issues presented by Option 1.”
  3. Creating a new daily service, Gulf Wind, that would run from New Orleans to Orlando. “This option would produce a more consistent service due to shorter route length (786 miles)… However, Option 3 has the highest projected operating losses and produces the lowest number of additional passenger miles (80.5) per trail mile operated, in large part because all passengers traveling to points north or west of New Orleans would have to change trains.”

The Pensacola station was reported in good condition with an ADA score of 82 — the highest of all suspended service stations. (Mobile’s station had a score of 0.) The report also noted how beneficial a service restoration would be to the beleaguered Gulf Coast area:

Even before Hurricane Katrina and the current recession, most of the region between New Orleans and Orlando that was served by the suspended Sunset Limited service had considerably less economic prosperity than the United States as a whole. … Restoration of passenger rail service in the Gulf Coast Region would create jobs; increase state/local tax revenues; and could give a boost to the area’s local tourism industry. Daily passenger rail service would provide increased mobility and local economic benefits, although it would require much higher levels of public funding than tri-weekly service.

There is absolutely no question that restoring service would be great for Pensacola and the Gulf Coast, and as the National Association of Railroad Passengers pointed out, in FY 2004, passengers using the New Orleans-Orlando segment (only 28% of the Sunset Limited‘s total miles) generated 41% of the route’s revenue. But will service be restored? Probably not.

As usual, it’s all about money. Implementing any of the three plans would cost between $32.7 million and $96.6 million for one-time mobilization and capital expenses, with annual operating losses estimated between $4.8 million and $18.4 million.

“The Sunset Limited route historically has one of the highest per passenger subsidies,” said Dan McFaul, chief of staff and press secretary for Congressman Jeff Miller. “Given the cost to restore Amtrak service from New Orleans to Orlando, and the high losses with the past operation of the line, it is unlikely to be reestablished in the immediate future.”

Yes, the costs of restoring service would be high, but keep in mind that Amtrak received $1.49 billion in federal subsidies for the year 2009 — $165 million more than the previous year alone — plus the $1.3 billion appropriated in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. With that amount of money going to support Amtrak, what’s another $10 million or so in yearly subsidies? Shouldn’t the taxpayers along the Gulf Coast expect to see something for our money?

McFaul said that Congressman Miller “is opposed to raising Amtrak subsidies and supports moving towards sustainability of operations without taxpayer funds. Like most in the community, we would like to have the service running through Northwest Florida again. However, this nation is at a point financially where we most prioritize not what we want, but rather what we need.”

The problem is that the train has left the station, so to speak. While Congress required Amtrak to develop a plan to restore service, there was no requirement to follow through with it. National sympathy for the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina faded with time, and President Obama’s stimulus package — with $8 billion set aside for rail transportation — made additional Amtrak appropriations a tough sell. (Governor Scott’s famous refusal of $2 billion in federal funds for the proposed Florida High Speed Rail probably didn’t do us any favors either.) No one wants to ask for the money anymore.

And — sorry to be such a downer here — even in the unlikely event that Amtrak returned, it wouldn’t be the romantic picture of a bustling rail station that many would hope. In the three service options Amtrak proposed, these were the arrival times for Pensacola: 1:59 am, 2:29 am, 11:29 pm, 4:29 am, 1:30 am, and 11:25 pm. In other words, you’d be waiting for the train in the middle of the night, and for the rest of the day, the station would look largely as it does now: unused and empty.