October 10, 2023 - TRA Newswire -

Passenger rail advocates, Amtrak and elected officials gathered in Mississippi over the past weekend to hear about new and expanded future train service at what was billed RailNation: Meridian. 

Meridian, known as Queen City in Northern Mississippi, would be the deverging point for current Amtrak Crescent train service heading south to New Orleans and a new service extension west to Dallas-Fort Worth. Northward trains would serve Birmingham, Atlanta, Charlotte and other stops to New York City with direct service from North Texas.

In a presentation by John Robert Smith, Chair of Transportation For America, he indicated that working with Canadian Pacific-Kansas City Southern (CPKC), Amtrak and the Southern Rail Commission, one round trip on the extension to North Texas is possible within two years with a second frequency possible within four/five years.  

DC-based Rail Passengers Association hosted the symposium and the keynote speaker, Federal Railroad Administrator Amit Bose, said that by the end of the year the FRA is planning to announce $4.5 billion in federal-state partnership grants to expand existing passenger rail service and for the development of high speed rail. 

Just several weeks ago the federal rail agency announced $1.4 billion in funding for 70 projects that included over $178 million for the Gulf Coast Corridor to restore passenger rail service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama. That project is a combined effort of the Southern Rail Commission, Amtrak and Norfolk Southern Railroad. Service had been suspended along the Gulf following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. 

Bose also indicated that the FRA will soon be announcing which submissions will be approved for funding under the Corridor Identification Program. The Texas Department of Transportation is vying for planning grants for three passenger rail corridors: Dallas/Houston; Dallas-Fort Worth/Austin/San Antonio and San Antonio/Houston.

Bose thanked attendees for their support of expanding train service to more towns and cities, especially in underserved rural areas. “Those efforts are important and the FRA absolutely needs to hear about those. Congress needs to hear about those. The governors of those states where that service will help need to hear about your support for those routes,” said Bose.

Rail Passengers Association President/CEO Jim Mathews said that the impact of passenger rail service in Meridian shows how one smaller city was transformed by the construction of Union Station under former Mayor John Robert Smith. The station serves as a hub for train and bus service and jump started a revitalization effort in downtown Meridian. Holding the RailNation conference in Meridian gave RPA Council delegates and members an opportunity to experience the economic benefits firsthand. 

Mayors from Monroe, Louisiana; Greenwood, Mississippi and Natchez, Mississippi spoke at the symposium and described the importance of passenger rail as a lifeline for their region. Some of the cities do not have air service and limited or no intercity bus connections. 

Bose's office has a herculean effort ahead to issue grants and state-federal partnered rail program funds from the $66 billion allocated to passenger and freight rail under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) that Congress passed in 2021.  A number of programs can mean improvements for rail service in local communities, according to Bose.

The agency has already advanced more than 190 individual projects across the country with over $16 billion dollars available in rail funding. Bose said "we had $6.5 billion dollars in applications for a $1.4 billion dollar program. We had to say no to $4.1 billion in projects across the country." This from an unprecedented demand by cities and states to improve rail safety, reliability of rail service and add new train service. 

"Two areas that have drawn FRA's attention are grade crossing accidents as well as blocked crossings," according to Bose. "I've encouraged communities to take advantage of future rounds of railroad crossing elimination funding and look shortly for this years notice of funding opportunities through that program." A new round of funding applications will open in the coming months through the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) Program. 

The federal rail agency boss urged interested parties and potential project sponsors to go to the Federal Railroad Administration website and look at the Corridor Identification Program webinar and others that are posted. Information can be found  under the grants and loans tab that describe the programs available.

Photo credit: Meridian Star