It’s been more than 50 years since the last train brought passengers into and out of Baton Rouge. A long-envisioned passenger rail line that would provide a new link to New Orleans is still in the early stages but has gained recent momentum, including support from the public along the proposed path and the backing of Gov. John Bel Edwards.
"Interstate 10 is always going to be there for us, but we need an alternative, and we need both," said John Spain, executive vice president of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and chairman of the Southern Rail Commission.
But paying for the project has been a major sticking point over the years. Former Gov. Bobby Jindal rejected federal funding set aside by the Obama administration for building a high-speed train.
Edwards affirmed his support of the project on the campaign trail this fall, telling regional and business leaders that “Louisiana will not be left at the station when it comes to passenger rail in this country.”
Louisiana would need to put up more than $100 million to draw federal grants for the project, which has an estimated $260 million price tag for building the needed infrastructure.
Congress also recently approved money in the 2020 budget to help pay for running commuter rail systems.
The last passenger train to serve Baton Rouge, the Southern Belle, rolled through on its way to New Orleans on the morning of Nov. 3, 1969, after the Interstate Commerce Commission gave the Kansas City Southern Railroad and its subsidiary, the Louisiana & Arkansas Railway, permission to drop the service amid falling revenue.
In early 1968, the U.S. Post Office had stopped transporting mail via the Southern Belle. In 1967, several other railroads dropped passenger service to and from the state's capital city.
Beginning in 1940, the Southern Belle carried passengers between Union Station in Kansas City, Missouri, and the Union Passenger Terminal in New Orleans, covering the 873 miles in just over 16 hours. Motorists today can cover the distance in about 13 hours. Nonstop commercial flights take less than two hours.
To promote its new service, the railroad held a beauty contest to pick a "Southern Belle." Margaret Landry of Baton Rouge, then 18, was featured in advertising and other promotional material, including luggage stickers.
Spain's group is interested in the route between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, which the Southern Belle covered in two hours, with daily stops at Kenner and flag stops at Gonzales.
It plans to ask the incoming Legislature ahead of the spring session by pointing out public support for restarting passenger service, as well as an economic boost that could come from having a rail line connecting the state’s two largest cities.
This year, business leaders from Baton Rouge and New Orleans released findings from a poll conducted among residents along the proposed rail line that said roughly 75% of respondents favor finding a way to travel between Baton Rouge and New Orleans without driving. About 85% of them also said it’s “very important” or “important” to have a rail line connecting the two cities.
The poll surveyed 1,050 registered voters in Ascension, East Baton Rouge, Jefferson, Orleans, St. James and St. John the Baptist parishes.
The train line would take just over an hour from end-to-end — from downtown Baton Rouge to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. Planners estimate daily ridership at first could be about 2,000 people, with round-trip tickets costing around $15.
There could be up to eight round trips each day, with trains zooming up to 80 mph.
Along the line, there would be intermediate stops in suburban Baton Rouge, Gonzales, LaPlace, Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in Kenner, and Jefferson Parish.
Gonzales and LaPlace have already begun planning for depot stations, including where they'd be located and what they would look like.
Among the selling points of the 80-mile commuter line is that it would have the potential to help build an economic “super region” that could compete with metro areas like Dallas and Atlanta, Spain said.
He pointed to Amazon’s recent decision to build its second headquarters in northern Virginia, with the company citing as one reason that the region has the potential to add more commuter train lines.
Spain also pointed to benefits in attracting younger workers by giving them alternatives to driving.
Opening a rail line, however, would take years if not decades.
"I'm hoping that we'll have the conversations within the year about where the funding might be available to match those federal dollars," Spain said. "I'm thinking in this next couple of years, we can actually get something to happen."