With the inclusion in the appropriations bill recently signed by President Donald Trump of almost $1.3 billion dollars for operation and expansion of Amtrak rail service, there is a good chance that passenger trains will soon return to the Gulf Coast.
There is an even better chance that, if and when such service is restored, those trains will bypass Atmore, despite the city’s designation by Alabama Department of Transportation officials as the state’s official railroad welcome center.
Those are some of the opinions shared this week by Southern Rail Commission member Jerry Gehman of Atmore, a passionate railroad enthusiast, after a Monday (April 16) commission meeting in New Orleans.
“I can’t say that I have great news, as far as Atmore is concerned,” Gehman said by phone during his return from the Big Easy. “The more we know, the cloudier the skies become. I’m still optimistic, but my optimism is waning a bit. Right now I’m pessimistically optimistic.”
The SRC member said he felt certain that passenger service would eventually be restored from New Orleans to Mobile, but bemoaned the anticipated omission of Atmore from the line.
“A letter has been given by Amtrak to CSX, stating that Amtrak would commence (passenger) service (in the Gulf Coast region) within twelve to eighteen months,” he revealed. “It would be great to say we would have a train in Atmore in the next twelve to eighteen months, but on a scale of one to one hundred, it’s probably fifty-five possible, forty-five not possible.”
Gehman said estimates are that the inclusion of Atmore on the New Orleans-to-Mobile route would cost around $73 million. He admitted that the first, most logical step would be to establish service from New Orleans to Mobile, then concentrate on getting Atmore added later.
“The short-term solution may be to just have service to Mobile,” he said. “That would be the easiest thing to do. It’s disappointing to say that, but you have to start somewhere. Maybe we could start with Mobile in the first phase, then add Atmore in Phase II.”
But, he said, he would continue the fight to have Atmore included in the plan’s initial stages.
“This really puts a chink in our goal,” said Gehman of the possible postponement. “(The omission of Atmore until Phase II) is not something I want to see happen, but that might be the only option. My goal is still to have Atmore in Phase I, but from the bottom of my heart I have tried everything I know.”
He pointed out that the inclusion of the city in the first phase would provide an immediate economic shot in the arm for Atmore and the surrounding area, including the Poarch Creek Indians reservation. He said the establishment of Atmore’s place on the route would eventually bring eight trains a day to the local depot.
“It would have a significant economic impact; it would change the whole landscape; it would be the economic boost that we need,” the local businessman said. “It would employ people; it would bring people to the city and to Poarch, where it would benefit OWA and PCI Gaming. More important, it would be a terminus (end of the line) location where people within a hundred-mile radius could catch a train in Atmore.”
Gehman added that the availability of federal Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements grants, along with other grant money earmarked for restoration of passenger rail service destroyed by natural disasters, make up a funding pool that is quickly drying up. (Such grant applications must be filed by June 20.)
“From my perspective, we have a perfect alignment of the stars, but a small window of time,” he mused. “If we lose this chance, I don’t know if we’ll ever have an opportunity like this again. I’m not willing to give up on Atmore just yet. I keep asking myself, ‘What have we not tried? Where else can we look? Can we get there another way?’ That’s where I’m at — let’s find a way to make it happen.”