For decades, it was possible to step off Orlando's train platform, perfumed by orange groves, and alight a few days later at the handsome Union State in Los Angeles, effectively cruising the Sunset Limited Line from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The route hugged the Gulf Coast on its way from Tallahassee and Pensacola to Biloxi, and New Orleans before shooting straight west out of the bayous into Texas hill country and eventually into the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona.
But Hurricane Katrina ended the easternmost portion of that storied route, and for the past fifteen years the Sunset Limited hasn’t gone past the Big Easy.
Cities along the eastern gulf regularly discussed restoring service, but the talks were always tabled. Flights were too cheap, highways too wide-spread. Even the commercial freight lines which had owned the track and shared them with Amtrak’s passenger service found other ways to get goods where they were going. But City Council members in Mobile just voted to approve a new service from New Orleans to Mobile.
While the decision doesn’t restore the full former length of the Sunset Limited – which once ran not only to Orlando but as far as Miami – it would bring four trains each day back through the Mississippi Gulf and as far as Alabama, passing through Pascagoula and Bay St. Louis.
"That service, yet to be named, will be of greater utility and reliability than serving that market with trains that ran less than daily and originated hundreds (Orlando) and thousands of miles (Los Angeles) away," explained Marc Magliari, a public relations manager for Amtrak Government Affairs.
In addition to Mobile’s financial contribution, Mississippi and Louisiana have also earmarked funds to contribute to the new service, with hopes Mobile could serve as the new terminus by 2023. That said, one of the first matters to sort out is where the Mobile station will be located, which will take some negotiation with various stakeholders.
In the past, there were two different places where passengers could pick up trains in Mobile– the Mobile Station that was served by L&N and later Amtrak, and the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Passenger Terminal. According to Magliari, the Southern Rail Commission would like to see the new train service at the Downtown Mobile Airport. But that and numerous other details remain to be decided over the next few years.
The hope for many in favor of bringing Amtrak back into the Mississippi Gulf is to give travelers a new way to explore a region known for blues music, unique cuisines, Mardi Gras celebrations and white sand beaches, whether they’re coming to Mobile from elsewhere in the region or visiting for the first time from further afield. But the last-minute decision could also prove to be a bellwether for U.S. train travel in an era of climate change.
Amtrak has had its struggles in recent years as Americans have favored driving and flying for business and personal travel. Delays caused by sharing the track with commercial lines and the slower pace have given train travel a bad rap, and Amtrak has been trying to find new ways to cut costs and keep up with changing tastes, like altering its dining services and introducing new Acela trainsets.
Meanwhile, in Europe, where there was already a more robust network of passenger lines, rail travel is actually on the rise as fears of climate change have prompted trends like “flight shaming.” Europe's busiest routes are touting themselves as the more sustainable means of transportation. And in addition to classic night train routes, new sleeper train services have been added between countries including Austria, Germany, and Italy in recent years, and soon in Sweden, too.
Flight shaming hasn’t had the same impact yet in the United States as it has in climate activist Greta Thunberg’s native Sweden, but that doesn’t mean it won’t take off – especially with improved connectivity soon available to would-be train travelers.