Amtrak passenger service on track for rail service across Gulf Coast from New Orleans to Orlando _lowres

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD – An Amtrak train pulls into the train station in Slidell Thursday, April, 3, 2014.

Five weeks ago, an Amtrak inspection train rolled across south Mississippi for the first time since Hurricane Katrina.

On Wednesday, officials met in Biloxi to move forward plans of restoring passenger rail service across the Gulf Coast from New Orleans to Orlando, Florida.

Officials from CSX, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker’s office, the Federal Railway Administration and states and cities involved met to get a report concerning the project to Congress by a Sept. 4 deadline.

Mark Murphy, general manager of long distance service for Amtrak, said lawmakers want to see a preferred route, what infrastructure and repairs are needed to operate, the cost of restoring train service and funding sources.

The group suggested a daily round-trip train from New Orleans through south Mississippi to Mobile, Alabama, and a long-distance train that would connect from New Orleans to Orlando, Florida, through Jacksonville, Florida.

“We have to figure it out. There’s an aggressive timeline to do this,” Murphy said. He said the group will continue to meet every month to put together a plan.

Murphy said the project has the potential to open the community to a tourist market.

From April 1993 until Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005, the Sunset Limited Amtrak line ran from Los Angeles to Jacksonville. But the service has been out of commission for more than a decade because of the devastating storm.

There’s been some movement to restore the service, as part of a $9.5 billion long-distance Amtrak service that would run from Chicago to New Orleans, then veer east along the Gulf Coast to Orlando.

Amtrak sent an inspection train on a two-day trip from New Orleans to Jacksonville in mid-February as part of the process in looking at bringing rail service toward Orlando. This was the first time Amtrak sent a train along those rails since Katrina.