VIP Train Will Roll Next Month As Officials Study Rail Service Return To Gulf Coast

January 14, 2016


The return of passenger rail service to the Gulf Coast is taking one more major step toward reality with a special train set to roll through the area in February.

Amtrak’s Sunset Limited passenger train, which included service from New Orleans through Pensacola to Jacksonville, came to an end along the Gulf Coast due to damage from Hurricane Katrina. The restored rail service would breathe life back into abandoned train stations in Pensacola and Atmore, but now there is at least one option being discussed that would not see service restored in Florida.

“We are on the cusp hopefully of retrieving our lost rail service,” Jerry Gehman, Atmore’s representative to the Southern Rail Commission, announced Wednesday. “The specifics have now been nailed down to where we will have a train event in our city February 18. There will be what is called a VIP train, or an inspection train, that Amtrak will run from New Orleans to Jacksonville, FL. On that train, it’s intended purpose is to build support at the state level for funding the cost of this train as far as the state’s share is concerned.

The invitation-only train will arrive in Atmore at 3:55 p.m. on February 18. Passengers will board buses to spend the night at the Wind Creek Hotel in Atmore, while the empty train will continue. On the morning of Feburary 19, the passengers will be bused to Pensacola to re-board the train at 8 a.m. and continue on to stops in Crestview, Chipley, Tallahassee and Jacksonville.

The train is a test of sorts, testing the potential route and testing the willingness of state leaders from Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana to provide millions in funding for the daily train service.

“That’s what this train is designed to do….to bring community leaders, local state and federal to the table to talk about it to see if we can get the money to fund one of three options. All three of those options include Atmore, and I’m really excited,” Gehman said. If the states are willing to pay up, the earliest Gehman said the train would roll would be about 24 months.

One of the options being considered by Amtrak, according to Gehman, would return train service from New Orleans only to Atmore, while other options would continue into Florida to Pensacola and Orlando. The route into Florida would depend on the state’s willingness to financially  support the service.

The Poarch Creek Indians are extremely support of the return of rail service, not only to Atmore, but along the Pensacola to Jacksonville route along which the tribe has gaming properties, or at least plans for gaming property, Gehman said. While a member of the tribe, he noted that was not speaking officially on their behalf during a Wednesday afternoon press conference.

The Atmore area could also benefit from new jobs the rail route would create.

“That daily service train would have to be serviced, and they (Amtrak) have interest in us facilitating that in our community,” he said.  The Poarch Creek Indians own property alongside the railroad line, and they have expressed interest in bringing the train maintenance to Atmore, along with about 20 daily jobs.

Atmore officials are planning to make a huge impression on the VIP passengers when the arrive in the city for their overnight stay on February 19. The plan to meet the train with huge fanfare — high school bands, color guards, school groups and thousands of local residents.

The city is also asking residents to clean up  their homes and businesses prior to February 19, according to Mayor Jim Staff. The city will use plywood to re-deck the aging train platform at the Atmore train station, which also services as Alabama’s Official Rail Welcome Station.  The town will install new flower boxes, flag decorations and more in their beautification efforts.

Pictured top: Jerry Gehman, Atmore’s representative to the Southern Rail Commission, says a special VIP inspection train will roll into the Atmore train station with invited passengers to spend the night of February 19 in Atmore. Pictured top inset: Gehman discusses a Southern Rain Commission report during a press conference Wednesday at the Atmore City Hall. Pictured bottom inset: Atmore Mayor Jim Staff listens during Wednesday’s announcement. Pictured below: The aging Atmore train station will be spruced up prior to the event, including the installation of new plywood decking. photos, click to enlarge.


31 Responses to “VIP Train Will Roll Next Month As Officials Study Rail Service Return To Gulf Coast”

  1. Bob on August 31st, 2016 7:55 pm

    Why does rail work everywhere but here in the USA? Why not restore The Sunset Limited and commuter rail from NOLA to FLA? It makes no sense. Restructure if need be but there’s no reason it wouldn’t work; unless it cuts into the “deregulated” airline industry?

  2. Gail Smith on June 7th, 2016 8:14 pm

    We are excited passenger rail service New Orleans to Florida is being considered!
    We would definitely ride often.

  3. Shirley Adams on April 9th, 2016 8:11 am

    I have missed going from Pensacola to Washington DC. I would make the trip to
    Atmore, Al (Wind Creek) more often if I didn’t have to drive. I was in Atmore when the train came through in February. Wonderful sight to see!

  4. Chris on March 11th, 2016 11:17 am

    Has there been any word if the initial run was successful? I hope they do decide to return service it would be great for the area.

  5. Glenda Adams on January 16th, 2016 7:52 pm

    I am so pleased that the commuter trains may become operational again. We need this more than ever now. Passengers, freight, A more economical way to travel than flying or driving. I would love to ride on a passenger train. Never rode one. Looking forward to it.

  6. Avis on January 16th, 2016 3:50 pm

    After reading the comments, I must agree with “M in Bratt.” This plan might have been a great idea 50 years ago. Looks like a waste of money to me. I fail to see how so many millions can be justified to satisfy a few nostalgia seekers. Besides, if you can afford the ticket, then you probably already own a car or two. If it’s such a good idea some private investor or PCI would have already jumped on it. Nope. Trying to sell a deal to a few politicians just smells really bad to me. Surely you all realize the cost estimates presented will multiply once a commitment is made.

  7. Kathryn K Moore on January 16th, 2016 2:47 pm

    I’m so appreciative and supportive of the fine people that have placed much effort in getting our Gulf Coast train service back.

    As a country we have to start looking at alternatives to driving and flying.

    I will certainly consider this service for taking trips to Jacksonville for trips to NYC, New Orleans, then to Chicago from there.

    Thank you, thank you for all of your diligence. I pray that the state of Florida will be supportive and do everything we can as a great state in this nation to promote the return of our train service.

    Best Regards,

  8. Michael Smith on January 16th, 2016 2:24 pm

    Re – Article about VIP Amtrak inspection train to run New Orleans – Jacksonville with stop at Atmore, AL: Agreed that Gulf Coast passenger rail service is (1) long overdue, (2( will cost millions and (3) will likely be slower than trains that run on advanced rail networks in Europe and Asia.
    Nevertheless, such a service will promote local economies near the station stops it serves.
    Further, it will lessen the burden of driving a long distance for business in or near the Florida state capital (And remove the required change of planes at Atlanta for the option to fly.). Finally, its success will be determined by schedule compatibility with the “Silver Service” trains at Jacksonville.

    If Florida legislators decide to ignore the above-mentioned idea then the next proposal should be a Florida to Atlanta fast passenger train service.
    A noteworthy item: a new high speed train is to debut in March/2016 from Tokyo to Hakodate on the north island of Japan. The (roadway per Google Map) distance from Orlando, FL to downtown Atlanta, GA is over ninety miles LESS than that of the soon-to-be inaugurated train service in Japan.
    And an undersea tunnel is unnecessary in the southeastern USA.

  9. Dunnell on January 15th, 2016 2:28 pm

    I would sure ride the train back home to Chicago from Florida. They may just capture the larger family dollars that cant afford $4000 air airfares and fees. Marketed correctly this will be a viable option from the Midwest for the almighty Florida Tourism Bureau . Did someone just figure this out ??. Lost a lot of those dollars already.

  10. J Howard Harding on January 15th, 2016 1:56 pm

    Mere extension of either the City of New Orleans or the Sunset Limited will not maximize either ridership or revenue. At least two daily trains need to be operated between New Orleans and Florida — and on nearly all other Amtrak routes as well.

    Beware of accepting service only as far as Mobile. Any such short route requires nearly 100% non-federal funding. But service all the way to Orlando should be considered a part of Amtrak’s national service network and require non-federal funding only for stations.

    Amtrak once proposed operating the Sunset Limited daily between Los Angeles and New Orleans, with a slight operating change. The through train would run between Los Angles and Chicago via San Antonio, Ft. Worth and Dallas TX, Little Rock AK and St Louis MO. A connecting train would operate between San Antonio, New Orleans and points east. This change was blocked when the Union Pacific Railroad demanded millions of dollars in track and signal upgrades along the entire route before adding daily service. Do not let CSX even attempt such blackmail. If CSX tries to extort vast sums, require that a third party consultant examine the route to determine what, if any, expenses are warranted.

  11. John marcocelli on January 15th, 2016 1:18 pm

    Would be nice if amtrak had designated tracks system wide like they have on the northeast corridor where you can travel at high speeds and not have to worry about delays caused by freight trains on the tracks that they lease from the major railroads,but i dont see that happening anytime soon,thats the major difference between most other countries passanger service compared to to america’s,but hopefully amtrak the states and counties involved on roite can figure it out,long overdue to reinstate service

  12. Happy on January 15th, 2016 9:50 am

    Its long over due. I hope Pensacola cleans up the depo . I can’t wait for the passenger train to actually start booking seats. I hope to take many trips. Family trips, romantic trips. It’s all so exciting u can almost take a trip back in time so to speak. I also understand that all CSX employees (active / retired ), spouses & children are able to ride for free or at least at a great discount. My husband can finally share what he gets to see on the rails all the time & were can travel on rails that he hasn’t seen yet, & experience it all as a family. We r so excited . I’m curious on what the pricing will be & if they will have sleeper cars? Can’t wait until it’s finally here.

  13. MAURICE on January 15th, 2016 12:08 am

    This would be awesome during football season. Either for Jax or NO fans. I would rather jump on the train the morning of head to a game and catch the train home in the evening. Better than driving.

  14. M in Bratt on January 14th, 2016 8:42 pm

    I sure hope Fl. and Al. lawmakers are wise enough to not buy into this boondoggle. Amtrak costs the taxpayers billions of dollars every year, and even with the taxpayers subsidies, tickets are still as high or higher than flying. If you want to enjoy the novelty of riding a train, go to Dollywood, or Disney World. They both have trains that are making money. Congress should shut down all the Amtrak routes that don’t make money (most of them), and let a bygone era die in peace.

  15. J B Lancaster on January 14th, 2016 7:27 pm

    The proosed train needs to operate daily both ways between New Orleans and Jacksonville, just like the pre-Amtrak “Gulf Wind” did. I can make connections with other trains in both New Orleans and Jacksonville and won’t be subject to the horrid delays experienced by trying to operate a transcontinental train between Los Angeles and Orlando.

  16. Woody on January 14th, 2016 5:56 pm

    East Point said, “… if … raise enough money to … buy the necessary additional locomotives and passenger cars… ”

    The Amtrak study indicates that it will have the needed extra equipment by the time the service could begin (at least 2 years from now). The capital costs could be only the $20 or $30 million for installing the speed-limiting, crash-avoiding Positive Train Control system on the line. Or more if CSX can show that adding this train would harm their operations. But the “Sunset Limited” ran here for 22 years, so RESTORING a train on the CSX line should cost how much?

    Here’s a link to the full study:

    The proposal for this “new” train is to simply extend the existing “City of New Orleans” running daily Chicago-Memphis-Jackson-Hammond (Baton Rouge)-New Orleans. So riders from Atmore or Florida could simply stay on the train all the way to Chicago, the hub of Amtrak’s national system. (Meanwhile airfares would drop in markets like Mobile-Jackson or Mobile-Jacksonville with the entrance of a low cost competitor.)

    Yes, to get to Houston or L.A., passengers would have to overnight in New Orleans. Leisure travelers might think a day in the Big Easy could be fun.

    Amtrak gets better when it gets bigger. More destinations, more connections, more convenience all mean more riders. Then Amtrak’s big overhead (the reservation system, the big maintenance facilities, debt repayments, etc) gets spread over a larger base, reducing the cost per rider and reducing the system’s overall loss.

  17. 429SCJ on January 14th, 2016 2:40 pm

    Germany was a blasted ruin after WWII and America was the “Super Power”.

    If you look at Germany’s public rail system as compared to ours, it makes you wonder where America went wrong?

  18. Susan on January 14th, 2016 1:44 pm

    Amtrack needs its own tracks. It will never be an efficient mode of transportation until that happens. But, I have to admit that I had fun on it when I traveled by rail to Tuscon. I wasn’t in a hurry to get there so I was able to enjoy the trip. Otherwise, I would have selected faster transportation.

  19. Will on January 14th, 2016 1:24 pm

    I think that the return of Amtrak service along the Gulf Coast would benefit (with two eastbound and two westbound) trips between Jacksonville FL and New Orleans, LA) or at least Mobile and New Orleans in a few ways:

    1) Provide local gulf coast (MS, AL, FL) communities access to the job market, schools, entertainment, New Orleans who otherwise may have less opportunity of jobs/ services/ schools in the gulf coast (with Greyhound bus service) as a supplement to train service;

    2) Provide access for car- less families (i know a few on the coast) to take day excursions within the coast, which in turn they support local business on the coast;

    3) service will provide better passenger rail access to east coast trains for further travel to the upper mid- west, northeast, and in between (example: currently can’t take a train from Biloxi or Pensacola to reach Atlanta, Miami,the Carolinas, Chicago),

    4) The military installations along the gulf coast would benefit because daylight service can provide transportation to military and families (or visitors) between base installations along the coast, as well as provide an outlet for military members to partake in leisurely travel.

    5) Visitors to the gulf coast would be able to explore gaming, historic sites, resorts, etc. which would bring money in to the local economy.

    I’ve been to the coast many times and there’s really no other economical alternative (other than infrequent bus service and driving) to enjoy all that the gulf coast has to offer. I remember the sunset limited pre- Katrina- the service was very inconvenient at the times it ran along the gulf coast, especially through New Orleans- Gulfport- Pensacola. Hopefully this time the states kick in to restore SOME service, and the train schedule is more passenger friendly.

  20. Anne on January 14th, 2016 1:15 pm

    $$$$$$ will be from the taxpayers in one form or another.

    Florida Gambling / Gaming folks could step up with some Big Bucks from their Political Collard Pots.

  21. Woody on January 14th, 2016 12:31 pm

    Some of us really want to ride a train: Circulatory disease makes sitting in a confined space is hazardous to our health. Failing vision and poor reflexes means we can’t drive distances. We’re too damn fat to squeeze into an airplane seat. We panic when we’re in that flying tin can in the sky. We’re cranky and don’t like security examining X-rays of our genitals. Etc.

    The government transfers billions and billions from the general fund (income tax revenue, etc) to cover the costs of highways. That’s because the gas tax pays only a fraction of the cost of highways that are useless to many citizens.

    Now Amtrak has made a bargain offer to operate a daily train New Orleans-Orlando, for $5 or $6 million a year from states and cities on the route. Adding computer-controlled speed limiting equipment could cost $30 million, once.

    Amtrak’s forecasts that at least 138,000 riders a year would use the train. Of course, that’s probably a low-ball estimate, because if actual ridership falls short, there’s hell to pay for the planners involved, so it rarely happens.

    In October 2009, an Amtrak train NYC-D.C. was extended down to Lynchburg, after the Virgina agreed to cover any operating loss. As it turned out, because ridership exceeded forecasts by a hefty amount, there was NO operating loss on this route.

    Meanwhile, the presence of a low-price competitor caused air fares out of Lynchburg to fall.

    This planned extension has elements of the Lynchburg train. It will use equipment that Amtrak already runs Chicago-New Orleans. So it will add more passengers to that train and some to other trains at New Orleans and Jacksonville. This will allow Gulf Coast citizens to use Amtrak’s national system after years of being cut off.

    It’s a good deal. And I’m glad to see Atmore supporting the new transportation choice.

  22. east point on January 14th, 2016 12:23 pm

    Although we still support this service restoration there are other routes that need new service more.
    Now if the coalition can raise enough money to upgrade the route plus buy the necessary additional locomotives and passenger cars then this poster is all for it.

    Right now Amtrak does not have any spare equipment except during the few winter months of low travel. Believe that the capital costs will be a very expensive eye opener.

    Another problem is that the present train schedules into and out of New Orleans do not allow for easy connections for trains to Houston, Chicago, and Atlanta.

    The best solution to is for our congressmen to get the whole country behind Amtrak and change some of the law to allow better initiation of additional trains ( especially New Orleans ) and routes along with the capital to implement these improvements.

  23. chris on January 14th, 2016 12:11 pm

    Thanks William. At least now I understand the reasoning behind the decision.

  24. William on January 14th, 2016 11:37 am

    >>>> how is this promoting train travel when you are riding a bus to the next station?

    This is literally because there is no place to park the train overnight in Atmore. It can’t stay on the main line and block CSX overnight.

  25. chris on January 14th, 2016 10:07 am

    “Passengers will board buses to spend the night at the Wind Creek Hotel in Atmore, while the empty train will continue; the passengers will be bused to Pensacola to re-board the train at 8 a.m.” how is this promoting train travel when you are riding a bus to the next station?

  26. BaeBae on January 14th, 2016 9:27 am

    Sorry….I only see an expense to the taxpayer. Yes it is exciting…yes its wonderful…yes it will be expensive….yes i remember the derailment in 1993…yes it is hard on the RR employees…If it comes back, wonderful…if it does not, wonderful
    It must be subsidized…no if ands or buts about it…its our money so lets trust the politicians with it one way or another…

  27. IL on January 14th, 2016 9:25 am

    I long for the day when this train service will reappear. There is a big gap in Amtrak service between Jacksonville and New Orleans, and I’d love to see it filled in. Cities and states along the SUNSET LIMITED route contributed lots of money for the east coast extension, only to see the train disappear after Hurricane Katrina. Let’s bring it back!

  28. jp on January 14th, 2016 8:20 am

    Ok, things don’t get this far along without serious cost estimates, so what is the cost and to whom.
    What will be the cost per job estimated to create?
    Include the cost to upgrade the rails and rail bed to carry passengers.
    Is this really what we need to spend borrowed money on?
    I do not see any way for this to be self supporting.
    Yes the people that will profit from spending other people’s money will like this.

  29. Anne on January 14th, 2016 8:00 am

    So, just WHO are the “VIP” people who will get to ride on this trial run?
    Will ordinary Tax Paying Citizens be able to get in on this VIP ride?

    Would LOVE to have a passenger train again as my kids (40’s) have never ridden one and it”d be an experience for the grandkids.

    Wonder if any of Florida and Alabama ANTI-Gambling lawmakers will be on the VIP list?

  30. 429SCJ on January 14th, 2016 5:59 am

    Plywood would look cheap and tacky.

    Spring for some treated 2 x 12s and paint them to match.

    Surely a there is a lumber yard in proximity, whose owner is an Atmore Chamber of Commerce member?

  31. Gman on January 14th, 2016 4:43 am

    Long overdue.

Have a comment on this story?

We welcome your comments on this story, but there are some rules to follow::

(1) Be Nice. No comments that slander another, no racism, no sexism, no personal attacks.

(2) No Harrassing Comments. If someone says something bad about you, don't respond. That's childish.

(3) No Libel. That's saying something is not true about someone. Don't do it.

(4) Keep it clean. Nothing vulgar, obscene or sexually related. No profanity or obvious substitutions. Period.

(5) reserves the right to remove any comments that violate our rules or we think to be inappropriate. We are not responsible for what is posted. Comments may not appear right away until they are approved by a moderator.

(6) Limit your comments to the subject in this story only, and limit comments to 300 words or less. Do not post copyrighted material. Comments will not be added to stories that are over 30 days old.

(7) No posts may advertise a commercial business or political group, or link to another commercial web site or political site of any kind.