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

Amtrak has come out against Canadian National Railway’s plan to buy Kansas City Southern Railway for $33.6 billion, citing specific concerns about a plan to sell a section of the railroad between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

Prospects for a passenger rail line connecting Baton Rouge and New Orleans got a boost this week after the Biden administration proposed $80 billion for passenger rail in its massive infrastructure program and Amtrak released plans to add 30 new routes that include the long-discussed service.

“It was a really, really good day,” said John Spain, executive vice president of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and a longtime advocate for passenger rail service. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, but this is the closest we’ve ever been.”

The proposed Baton Rouge to New Orleans Amtrak line would include many of the elements recommended in a 2014 rail study, commissioned by BRAF, the Capital Region Planning Commission and the New Orleans Regional Planning Commission. There would be stations near the Electric Depot on Government Street and in the Bluebonnet-Essen-Perkins medical district, both in Baton Rouge, in Gonzales, LaPlace and at Louis Armstrong International Airport, with the final stop at the Union Passenger Terminal near the Superdome.

"Amtrak said the work we've done, they're going to do," Spain said.

It would take about an hour to ride the whole route, close to the same time it would take to drive the same distance. The study called for eight round trips a day, with round trip tickets costing about $15.

The 2014 report estimated it would cost $262 million to get the rail service going. The biggest expense would be $62.1 million to replace the 1.8-mile wooden rail bridge across the Bonnet Carre Spillway, where trains now crawl at 10 miles per hour.

“The plans are there,” said Spain, the former chairman of the Southern Rail Commission. There are federal funds that would cover half the costs of building train stations and would help pay for the upgrades to the rail line. One of the next steps would be for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development to apply for grants to cover the rail upgrades.

Next year, Amtrak is set to restore the rail line from New Orleans to Mobile, Alabama, that was canceled after Hurricane Katrina. Extending passenger rail to Baton Rouge is the “logical next step," said Knox Ross, secretary-treasurer of the Southern Rail Commission.

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Amtrak is focused on developing rail service between city pairs, like Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Ross said a line between the state capital and the Crescent City checks the boxes the agency is looking for: public support (a recent survey of south Louisiana residents found that 85% said it was "very important" or "important" to have a rail line connecting Baton Rouge and New Orleans); good population density; and a trip time that’s competitive with driving. Plus, there’s political muscle behind the effort. Gov. John Bel Edwards supports the measure, along with former U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond. The New Orleans Democrat is now working in the White House as a senior adviser to Biden.

It also doesn't hurt that the president has the nickname "Amtrak Joe" from the daily train commute he made from his home in Delaware to Washington, D.C. 

“Louisiana is uniquely situated to get this done,” Ross said. 

Another factor working in favor of the rail line is Canadian Pacific Railway’s proposed purchase of Kansas City Southern. While Canadian Pacific has a great relationship with Amtrak, Spain and Ross both note the service isn’t running on the KCS network at all. “We think there’s a new opportunity to talk to new management,” Spain said.

Even with all the energy and momentum behind the push for rail service, there are still some obstacles that need to be overcome. The transportation bill needs to make it through Congress, and there's been some concern about the $2 trillion price tag. 

“This is not an insignificant project,” Spain said, “but the fact they’ve announced something to the public is exciting for us.”

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.

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