Gulf Coast Train Tour - Recap
Over 300 people rode the train, with thousands more greeting its arrival at each of the 13 stations across 4 states, demonstrating a groundswell of enthusiasm and support for the restoration of passenger rail service to the Gulf Coast. The Southern Rail Commission is committed to keeping the momentum going by working with the Federal Railroad Administration, Amtrak, state and federal leaders and other partners to identify funding and a workable plan. See the recap of the trip below.
Thursday, February 18th
Union Passenger Terminal
The journey started at the Union Passenger Terminal in New Orleans located within walking distance of the Superdome and the world famous French Quarter. An early morning press conference hosted by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, introduced VIPs slated to ride on the train such as Sarah Feinberg, FRA Administrator, Shawn Wilson, LA DOTD Secretary, Congressman Cedric Richmond, Senator Roger Wicker from Mississippi, Congresswoman Corrine Brown from Florida, Tom Carper, Amtrak Board Member and Immediate Past Chairman, and John Spain of the Southern Rail Commission. Over 150 people boarded the train ready to experience the first passenger rail operation east of New Orleans since 2005.
Bay St. Louis, MS
Bay St. Louis, a coastal Mississippi community ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, hosted one of the biggest celebrations of the first day. It appeared the entire town greeted the train with cheering crowds, ready to show that they wanted to implement the final piece of recovery from Katrina.
The local ROTC Band flanked the "welcome aisle" as the guests departed the train toward the town’s beautiful, recently redeveloped depot. Another large group of riders were ready to check on board, including Mississippi’s Governor, Phil Bryant and Mississippi’s own Senator Roger Wicker. The Governor and Senator Wicker continued on through all of the Mississippi stops, clearly understanding the economic potential for passenger rail along the Gulf Coast. Hancock County Board of Supervisors President Blaine LaFontaine and Mayor Les Fillingame welcomed the travelers. Everyone from the town came to greet the train including a women's walking club, Nehreids' royalty in costume, cheerleaders, local transportation providers, the Library team, students from Trinity, OLA and St Stanislaus schools – many who had never before seen a passenger train, the Mardi Gras Krewe of Seahorse, a full Buoy's gang and many other business and political leaders. Train riders were given a unique gift bag designed by local school children and filled with treats from Bay St. Louis.
The crowds on hand in Gulfport were treated to an arriving train with their hometown VIP Senator Roger Wicker, standing in the Engineer’s door helping guide the train to the station. During his comments, Senator Wicker noted that when had been a small boy growing up in Gulfport near the train tracks, he vowed that one day he would be driving one the trains that came into his hometown! Governor Bryant and Senator wicker were joined by MS State Senator Michael Watson, further increasing the political awareness of the economic potential that intercity passenger rail can add to Mississippi coastal revenues. Mayor Billy Hewes hosted the Gulfport event, where more than a thousand or more people – professionals, families with children, seniors and millennials – joined in a festive welcome. Hancock Bank provided bottled water and soft drinks. The local high school band and cheerleaders added to the energy before the train’s arrival and as it slowly pulled away from the station.
Proud of their national contributions to both the defense and energy sectors with Ingall’s Shipbuilding and a major Shell refinery, Pascagoula came all out to greet the Inspection Train’s arrival. Crowds cheered, flags waved, a local high school jazz band played, and cheerleaders raised the chant welcoming Mayor Jim Blevins, Governor Bryant, Senator Wicker, Congresswoman Brown, and Administrator Feinberg, along with other dignitaries. In a memorable moment, the FRA Administrator stated that never had they seen such welcoming, vibrant communities and they shouldn’t just bring service back here, but she might move to the coast!
Passengers were again greeted in Biloxi by cheerleaders, a marching band, and nearly 1,000 excited residents. Amtrak Board Member Tom Carper addressed the crowd on a stage set up adjacent to the CSX rail tracks and nearby the city’s new intermodal transportation center, designed and ready to accommodate passenger rail travelers on a daily basis. Speaking to the crowds which included a large contingent of active duty military and veterans from the nearby Keesler AFB, Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich, Governor Bryant, U.S. Senator Wicker, MS Representative Steve Massengill, and FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg (also joined by MDOT Commissioners Dick Hall and Commissioner Tom King) recognized the community’s significant tourism and entertainment contributions and the opportunities that daily passenger service would bring. Going all out to show off local treats for visitors, Biloxi boasted the only stop serving fresh oysters, with boiled crawfish, and other Gulf coast specialties.
When the train pulled into Mobile, the Excelsior Band -- a local Mardi Gras brass band and the Azalea Trail Maids were there to welcome it on the grounds of the former train station. Mobile City Councilman Fred Richardson rode the train starting in New Orleans. He said, “We all realize the value of passenger rail. We have the busy Carnival cruise ships in the port…but is there another way to get all these tourists to and into our city? We’ve got air, we’ve got water, but we don’t have rail. So we’re trying to send a message today; a message that old people, young people, black and white people in Mobile — they want Amtrak and passenger rail. It’s galvanized people in our region and they want the train to roll. We’re missing this part of the puzzle that can help us bring another one million tourists into our city.”
What a fantastic end to the first day by arriving to such a warm welcome in Atmore! With the backdrop of music by the local High School Jazz Band and cheers from hundreds of supporters who had been enjoying local celebratory events throughout the afternoon, the train arrived under a shower of arcing water from the local fire department. VIPs exited the train through an arch of swords provided by an acclaimed high school ROTC squad. Recognizing the area’s history and economic contributions, gift bags were presented by the Chamber of Commerce while greetings were made by the Tribal Council of the Poarch Band Creek Indians. Mayor Jim Staff addressed the crowds, noting the importance of adding passenger service to the already limited transportation choices offered to Southern rural communities. Like the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the local economy in recent years has been significantly boosted through tourism and entertainment associated with developments in the gaming and resort industry by the Poarch Band Creek Indians on tribal lands surrounding Atmore. The only transportation option available to residents and visitors is by automobile or charter bus travelling on Interstate-65 or coming up from Pensacola, Florida on state highways. A large press conference was held that evening for Amtrak, the Southern Rail Commission, Congresswoman Corrine Brown (FL-01) and travelling VIPs at the Windcreek resort. At the press conference, Alabama’s Governor Robert Bentley was represented by W. Baker Allen, General Policy Advisor. A wrap up reception, hosted by Windcreek, allowed riders to compare notes and discuss their experiences at each of the stops, while a video was presented made from photos and camera videos collected throughout the day.
Friday, February 19th
Crowds were arriving long before before the train. Breakfast treats were donated by local businesses and handed out in the lobby of the Pensacola Amtrak Station – the first time in many years this modern facility had been opened for any type of use. Surrounded by several hundred cheering residents waving homemade signs, Mayor Ashton Hayward kicked off the “Florida Run” second day of the Inspection Train joined in opening comments by the area’s Chamber of Commerce leadership, Amtrak’s Tom Carper, the Southern Rail Commission’s Chairman, Greg White. Joining the train for the day’s run were Mary Louise Hester, representing Senator Bill Nelson, Florida, along with over 50 city and county officials from communities across the panhandle of Florida. U.S. Representative Corrine Brown fired everyone up before the train pulled away from the station with much fanfare.
Crestview Mayor David Cadle was among the Florida community elected officials that boarded the train this morning in Pensacola, riding the train to his hometown to a rousing greeting he had personally helped coordinate. Along with US Representative Corrine Brown, Amtrak’s Senior Vice President Joe McHugh, Southern Rail Commission Chairman Greg White, and a host of county and community elected officials, Mayor Cadle was greeted by nearly one thousand area residents who joined in cheering their support and welcome. A local jazz band played the classic “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” while an ROTC Flag Corps and local high school cheerleaders added to the hometown welcome. In the few minutes the train was at the station, Amtrak’s Joe McHugh spoke followed by U.S. Representative Corrine Brown, acknowledging the fantastic greeting and the direct message the community was giving to the rail officials.
The ONLY unscheduled stop on the 2-day Inspection Train occurred in Milton, FL, home of the Northwest Florida Railroad Museum. The Museum happens to be housed in Milton’s former train depot. Mayor Wesley Meiss had requested the train slow down through the Milton community so that the town’s supporters could show their enthusiasm and those on the train could photo, wave and enjoy another round of visible support. Talking to the museum personnel on his cell phone, Mayor Meiss noted they were approaching and the train was going to slow. He was informed by the museum staff – who happened to have a railroad communication band radio monitoring regular chatter of the freight trains – that in fact the Inspection Train would be stopping. “No,” said the Mayor, “They told me this morning it would only be slowing.” “No sir, Mayor. It’s gonna stop.” was the reply. And sure enough, right there in Milton, Florida this massive 1,000 foot long passenger train slowed and halted. Just long enough to board two people. Congresswoman Corrine Brown and Nick Martinelli, her Legislative Affairs Director, were the first people to board a passenger train in Milton since 1971. The locals were enjoying the photo opportunities and waved flags and cheered their support as the train headed eastbound again.
Thanks to the efforts of Heather Lopez with Visit Washington County, Chipley’s Bill Lee Station boasted the largest American flag seen along the trip and a lively group of residents ready to welcome back Amtrak. Led by a local ROTC color guard, Mayor Lee Dell Kennedy welcomed the Inspection Train’s VIPs to speak about the potential for passenger rail to serve the communities in Washington county and the southeast Alabama community of Dothan through a station stop right here in Chipley, FL. Speaking with enthusiasm for such a great crowd, Congresswoman Brown again noted the need for people of all demographics to have choices in long distance travel. Speakers noted the potential to connect with surrounding communities in Alabama, as well as the Florida coast. This was accented by supporters from the beach resort town of Panama City, FL who were on hand with signs stating “Panama City Welcomes Amtrak to Chipley”, indicating the possible reach of a daily service’s capacity to this area of the Florida panhandle. These sentiments were not lost on US Rep. Gwen Graham's economic development liaison, Kent Watson, who attended both the Chipley and Madison station calls.
Tallahassee’s Community Relations Director Sandra Manning had promised that her town was “READY FOR AMTRAK”, with a plan for showing support to beat all others. Tallahassee certainly lived up to Sandra’s promise as it proved to have the largest crowd with nearly 2,000 loud and proud community supporters in attendance at their station enjoying popcorn, ice cream, bands from FSU and FAMU, cheerleaders, food trucks and brewery in Railroad Square, and more! Having joined the train in Crestview, City of Tallahassee’s Commissioner Scott Maddox and others from Leon County revved up the crowd, letting them know that the ride in was something that all of northern Florida’s residents and visitors should be able to enjoy. Former Mayor John marks, III, joined Mayor Andrew Gillum and City Commissioner Nancy Miller to speak clearly about the support and readiness of Tallahassee’s newly redeveloped commercial entertainment district surrounding their Amtrak station to receive travelers on a daily intercity passenger service. U.S. Representative Corrine Brown continued to anchor the speakers with words of congressional support, then firing the crowd up with her signature cheer, “Fired up ! Ready to roll!” As the train pulled out, local Zydeco bands kept the crowd engaged as a downtown “Bring Back Amtrak” rally continued through the afternoon.
Crowds gathered around the small station on 1000 Range St. in Madison on Friday, Feb. 19 to welcome the Amtrak train to the city. Support for the train was clearly displayed, as people buzzed about excitedly, sharing personal experiences from past on riding the train themselves before the service was ended after Hurricane Katrina destroyed sections of the track in 2005. City officials, business owners and citizens all took part in sharing the anticipation of Amtrak’s return. Sunrise Coffee Shop provided doughnuts for the citizens who gathered to welcome Amtrak.
As the time drew nearer for the Amtrak train to pull into the station, everyone grew more excited as they checked their watches and kept watchful eyes on the train tracks. City Manager, Tim Bennett, regularly came to the podium to announce the newest location of the Amtrak until finally, the train could be spotted coming around the bend in the tracks. Citizens of Madison waved, shouted and clapped as the train smoothly pulled in and stopped, for the first time in 11 years, at the Madison station. Amtrak spokespersons, government officials and news crews stepped off the train, waving to Madison as the Madison citizens proclaimed their welcome.
Congresswoman Corrine Brown, the future representative for Madison County once the congressional districts shift, arrived on the train and came to the podium to speak to the citizens of Madison and declare her support for getting the return of Amtrak off the ground and running. There was no end to the bubble of excitement even as the quick visit drew to an end. The train needed to be on its way and the stop was brief, but the thrill was far from over.
“Who wants to ride the train?” was asked to the people of Madison, followed quickly with a spontaneous offer; the next stop of the Amtrak train would be in Lake City and then Jacksonville. Whoever had transportation back from these locations was invited to come and ride on the Amtrak train and give their opinions to the spokespeople on board.
It was a tantalizing offer and the people of Madison quickly accepted. Amtrak’s simple visit had become more, as veterans of the railway climbed on board to relive the train they’d missed so dearly and individuals who had never experienced Amtrak rode the rails for the first time.
As Amtrak pulled out from the station, it bore the exhilaration and hope of the Madison people with it.
(Text from Green Publishing, Inc.)
Lake City, FL
The importance of daily intercity passenger rail access was keenly presented by the enthusiastic crowd waving flags, honking horns, and cheering their support in Lake City. Mayor Stephen Witt and members of the City Council made a special note that economic resilience in rural locations such as Lake City could be significantly enhanced by having another link to the national transportation grid. Hosting a highly diverse population, Lake City offers historic cultural events year round for tourists and visitors making short “daycations” from the nearby metropolis’ of Jacksonville, Gainesville, and Tallahassee; as well as south Georgia visitors. A new industrial development in the nearby region means additional business travelers and job opportunities. Mayor Witt, Amtrak’s Joe McHugh, SRC’s Greg White and Congresswoman Corrine Brown all noted that Lake City represents communities across the nation where air travel is essentially nonexistent, accessing even bus travel options means driving by personal car nearly 100 miles, so that having daily passenger service can only bring positive economic impacts. Along with smiles, expressions of sincere thanks, and a lot of handshaking, many local people commented that they have family and friends across northern Florida whom they could visit and could visit them; and, that they could access health care facilities in Tallahassee and Jacksonville with much greater ease given daily rail service. When hundreds of people will take the time to travel 60 to 80 miles to come to Lake City simply to show their desire and support for possible rail service – our elected officials need to listen!!
Two full days of track and station observations are regretfully coming to an end as the Gulf Coast Inspection Train arrived at the Jacksonville Amtrak station shortly after dusk. The City of Jacksonville, led by Mayor Lenny Curry and a supporting crowd of still enthusiastic supporters provided a warm welcome to Amtrak’s Senior Vice President Joe McHugh, Southern Rail Commission Chairman Greg White and Secretary/Treasurer Knox Ross, who is also Mayor of Pelahatchie, MS. Noting Jacksonville’s existing passenger rail linkage with the east coast services, Mayor Curry expressed a sincere desire to extend that link west across the panhandle of Florida with the proposed daily service between New Orleans and Orlando. SRC’s Mayor Ross made a special request to all supporters to contact their elected officials at the state and federal levels to make a personal appeal for funding intercity passenger rail and the restoration of daily service across the gulf coast. Welcome gift bags were presented by the City to all the Inspection Train travelers, including Amtrak’s crew. Still energized, hometown favorite Congresswoman Corrine Brown closed out the trip with comments of her congressional support and her never ending rally “Fired Up! Ready To Roll !!”