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By Jack M. Turner

In April 1993 Amtrak inaugurated service between New Orleans and Miami via an extension of its Los Angeles to New Orleans Sunset Limited.  The special eastbound inaugural train was greeted by large crowds at stops between New Orleans and Jacksonville and modest crowds at points beyond which already were served by Amtrak.  The tri-weekly train did good business at first but ridership took a precipitous decline as the eastbound train earned a reputation for tardiness due to major freight congestion in Texas and points west.  By then the train had been cut back to Orlando though westbound patrons could still make a connection from points south at Orlando.

On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina slammed into the southeast Louisiana coast, devastating New Orleans and the Mississippi and Alabama Gulf Coasts.  The CSX rail line along the Gulf Coast was, in many places, destroyed with the worst damage inflicted upon its long bridges across St. Louis Bay and Biloxi Bay as well as along the coastal region.  The Amtrak station in Mobile, Alabama was flooded by the storm and subsequently razed in 2007.  CSX crews worked around the clock and restored the rail line within months following Katrina, an amazing feat considering the destruction.  Though the tracks were ready for a return of Amtrak, service was not restored though national timetables still listed stops east of New Orleans with the notation “The Sunset Limited service between Orlando and New Orleans has been suspended.  Future service has not been determined.”  Eventually the stations were removed from the Sunset Limited schedule though a dashed line continued on the Amtrak system map with a “Service Suspended” note in the map’s legend.

Periodic talk of restoring service to the “Sunset East” route surfaced from time to time but never seemed to gain traction.  Behind the scenes, though, the Southern Rail Commission (SRC), composed of members from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, was hard at work studying five options for restoring rail passenger service east of New Orleans.  In February 2016 the Commission was ready to take the next step by running an inspection train with major Amtrak involvement from New Orleans to Jacksonville.  The inspection train would allow Amtrak and the SRC to inspect the track and station infrastructure while permitting officials from the states and local communities to network in an effort to build support.  Media participation would help spread the message and the enthusiasm of local residents in the cities served would add a dose of local color.  What resulted far exceeded anyone’s expectations. 

The waiting room at New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal was alive with excitement at 7:30am on Thursday, February 18, 2016 as invited guests lined up to check in for Amtrak’s Gulf Coast Inspection Train.  Stops during the two-day event were the same as the station stops made during the 12 year run of the Sunset Limited.  A cadre of politicians, media, and other invitees boarded or detrained at each stop while Amtrak and CSX officials, Southern Rail Commission members, and a core group of politicians and media members rode the entire trip.

An interesting consist had been rounded up for the inspection train: P40 locomotive # 822 and P42 # 145, wearing matching Phase IIIb livery; Viewliner sleeper 62035; Heritage dormitory-conference car “Pacific Cape” (a former 10 roomette-6 bedroom sleeper); inspection car “Beech Grove, running open platform forward; Amfleet II coaches 25035, 25067, and 25023; Full dome “Ocean View”; Viewliner I diner 8400 “Indianapolis”; Viewliner sleeper 62043 “New River” (formerly “Sunset View”); and inspection car 10004 “American View”, a former Viewliner sleeper remodeled with conference room space and theater seating facing a full length rear glass end.
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The author beside P40 # 822 before departing New Orleans


Viewliner I dining car 8400 “Indianapolis” at New Orleans


Viewliner I sleeper “New River” (formerly “Sunset View”)


Preparing to depart the Crescent City


Track inspection car “American View” is a former Viewliner I sleeper


A glass window and theater seating allow excellent viewing of the tracks

Following a press conference in the station, the train loaded and departed at 8:45am.  After passing the Amtrak yard and branching eastward away from the route used by the City of New Orleans, the inspection train passed a group of women standing in a church parking lot holding a sign “Gulf Coast Needs Passenger Rail”.  Similar scenes would play out repeatedly throughout the next two days. 


The New Orleans Superdome appears as the train departs the station


An above ground cemetery stands adjacent to the point where the rails branch to the east

After crossing the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal linking the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, the train passed CSX Gentilly Yard then the NASA Michoud Assembly Facility which formerly constructed the external fuel tanks used on space shuttle flights.  Riders were amazed by the view as the special train traveled through eastern Louisiana, traversed marshlands, and skirted the shore of the glistening Gulf of Mexico on a cloudless morning. 


Beautiful views greet passengers in eastern Louisiana


The CSX line travels along the shore of the Gulf of Mexico near the mouth of the Pearl River

Anticipation built as we approached the first stop, Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, which had made a favorable impression in 1993 when one of the Sunset inaugural’s two largest crowds greeted the train.  As the special eased to a stop at 10:05am, the magnitude of the present day crowd overwhelmed everyone on board as a huge throng surrounded the railway station.  Many held signs welcoming Amtrak while others wore Mardi Gras inspired attire.  As officials and media detrained for a few remarks, the crowd clapped to tunes played by the Bay High School band. It was apparent Bay St. Louis wants Amtrak to return. 


A huge crowd meets Train at Bay St. Louis, MS


Great Dome “Ocean View” (originally built for Great Northern RR) at Bay St. Louis


Excited locals greeted the train at Bay St. Louis and subsequent stops


An enthusiastic crowd enjoys the festivities on the Bay St. Louis station platform


Bay High School’s band entertained outside the Bay St. Louis depot

Another scene was repeated from 1993 immediately after departure as a couple hundred uniformed students lined a schoolyard fence waving and holding signs welcoming Amtrak.  It occurred to me that some of these kids were likely second generation Amtrak greeters as their parents may well have stood along this fence 23 years earlier.  Just beyond the school the rails cross beautiful, wide St. Louis Bay whose waters ravaged the railway trestle during Katrina.  Beyond the eastern shore the special passed through Pass Christian, the focal point of Hurricane Camille in 1969.  Somewhere along this stretch a shrimp boat was deposited onto the tracks during Hurricane Katrina.  Despite these past disasters, this and other communities along the  Gulf today display an unconquered spirit that has led to prosperity.


Students line the fence for 100 yards behind their school in Bay St. Louis.  A similar scene in 1993 probably included some of their parents (see next photo).


In this 1993 scene students greet the Sunset Limited inaugural.train as it passes behind the school in Bay St. Louis


Photographers record the Gulf Coast Inspection Train preparing to cross St. Louis Bay


A beach beside the CSX bridge over St. Louis Bay


The US 90 bridge crosses St. Louis Bay south of the railway bridge

Arrival in Gulfport at 10:51am was met by another large and enthusiastic crowd which included a couple dozen onlookers standing on various levels of a five story parking garage adjacent to the station.  A fire truck extended a huge American flag over the train and the crowd jockeyed for position to listen to remarks by Governor Phil Bryant along with Amtrak Board member Tom Carper.  The Governor had ridden the engine from Bay St. Louis and would continue on to Pascagoula.  As was the case at all stops along the Mississippi coast, the Governor expressed support for bringing Amtrak back to the route.  Another speaker noted that we were blessed with beautiful chamber of commerce weather, clear skies and temperatures in the 70s.


A big crowd assembled at the Gulfport station


A parking garage adjacent to the Gulfport station provides good viewing to several onlookers


Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant enthusiastically endorses Amtrak’s return to Gulfport and the Mississippi Gulf coast

After tracing the southern edge of Keesler AFB, best known as home to the Hurricane Hunter aircraft teams, the Gulf Coast Inspection Train pulled into Biloxi at 11:26am.  Once again a large crowd waited, this time resembling a pep rally led by Biloxi High School‘s band and cheerleaders.  Just east of the Biloxi depot the railway crossed impressive Biloxi Bay and several photographers captured our passage from the banks of the bay.  One of the day’s big surprises awaited five minutes later as the train crept past the old Louisville & Nashville depot in Ocean Springs.  A large crowd waved excitedly as the train passed despite the fact that Ocean Springs has never been a passenger train stop since the days of the Louisville & Nashville’s Gulf Wind, Pan American, and Humming Bird.  Spotted among the crowd were signs reading “Amtrak Stop Here” and similar slogans.  It was noted on board that area casinos would be a certain destination if rail service returns to Biloxi.


Mardi Gras attire and umbrellas are evident as the train pulls into Biloxi


The stop in Biloxi resembles a high school pep rally


Crossing Biloxi Bay, the US 90 highway bridge stands to the south

Another sizeable crowd greeted the 12:03pm arrival at Pascagoula, home of the Ingalls Shipyard which handles many shipbuilding projects for the US Navy.  Crossing the river into town the shipyards could be spotted on the right along with a pair of NOAA research vessels headquartered in Pascagoula.  The next stop, Mobile, Alabama, produced an enthusiastic crowd at the site of the former Mobile Amtrak station which was razed after flooding damage from Hurricane Katrina.  Media reports indicate that plans have been drawn up for a new station just east of the former location.


NOAA research vessels based in Pascagoula are tied up near the railway


More signs are displayed by supporters in Pascagoula


The depot in Pascagoula remains ready for Amtrak


Platform view of the special train at Mobile

Leaving Mobile we passed the Alabama docks which are busy with oceangoing ships and a large volume of barge traffic.  Following a northward heading, the inspection train paralleled the Mobile River and passed beneath the massive I-165 highway bridge which was built during the years in which the Sunset Limited passed through the area.  Heading northeastward the CSX led us through a region dominated by rivers and bayous.  We paused for a couple minutes on the bridge crossing Bayou Canot, scene of the tragic Sunset Limited accident in October 1993 in which a barge piloted by a confused tugboat/barge captain rammed the railroad trestle on a foggy night.  A memorial plaque resting beside the east bank of the bayou on the south side of the track evoked the emotions of those familiar with the accident.


The I-165 bridge was constructed during the years the Sunset Limited traveled this route


The muddy Bayou Canot, scene of the sad Sunset Limited accident in 1993


Crossing the Tensaw River between Mobile and Bay Minette

The inspection train was welcomed to Atmore, Alabama at 2:25pm by a fire truck spraying a stream of water over the train in a scene similar to that used to greet newly commissioned aircraft and new cruise ships.  As was custom at all scheduled stops, dignitaries representing Amtrak and various political entities made a few remarks and thanked the crowd of local residents who met the train.  While the train deadheaded eastward to Pensacola to tie down for the night, invited guests were shuttled to the impressive Wind Creek Hotel and Casino north of town for a press conference, reception, and overnight stay.


Trailing P42 # 145 at Atmore


A creative homemade sign at the Atmore station


The inspection train departs Atmore for an overnight in the rail yard at Pensacola

The press conference featured Amtrak Vice President Joe McHugh and Amtrak Board member Tom Carper, Southern Rail Commission Chairman Greg White and Vice Chair John Spain, Congresswoman Corrine Brown from Jacksonville, Florida, former Amtrak Board and SRC member John Robert Smith, and other notable speakers in a panel format.  During the presentation of the plan to restore service it was made clear that there would be a daily New Orleans to Orlando train, possibly with a second train between New Orleans and Mobile.  It also was emphatically noted that this would involve equipment from the City of New Orleans rather than an extension of the Sunset Limited as the City would solve the timekeeping issues that plagued the Sunset and would allow daily service.  More than one speaker emphasized that such service would have ample revenue generating opportunities as the region’s population has grown while its tourism and gaming industries have expanded.  Stated John Robert Smith: “This isn’t about nostalgia; it’s about the future.  Your representatives have to hear your voice”.


Officials declare support during a press conference in Atmore

The Commission’s goal is to have service up and running within four years with various parties estimating anywhere from two to four years to begin operation.  It was noted that the massive crowds at the day’s stops were a real slice of Americana, representing the spirit of the South.  “There were old, young, school children, working people, retired folks and people of all races who took time out of their day to support us.  This brought tears to our eyes showing they want the train.  It links small towns, medium sized, and large communities,” observed Mr. Smith.

The Amtrak officials also expressed optimism with comments such as “We left 10 years ago after Katrina.  You never left us, we left you.  We are going to come back.  Today showed us what we are missing.  We promise to work to return.  CSX is a willing partner.”  Additionally it was stated, “There is a plan and a vision.  The company is committed to being a good partner.”


The view from the plush Wind Creek Hotel and Casino in Atmore

Friday, February 19, 2016 dawned bright and early as guests were shuttled to Pensacola for the Florida portion of the inspection trip.  A throng of supporters jammed the grounds of the Amtrak station which remains in good condition.  As the train departed at 8:00am a fire truck made a water salute which would be repeated in many communities through the day.  Immediately east of the station the CSX rails join Escambia Bay and follow the shoreline for several miles just a few feet from the bay’s sparkling waters.  After 15 minutes we passed under the twin span I-10 bridges along the western shore of Escambia Bay then curved sharply to the right and began the crossing of the bay on the impressive high-rise CSX bridge.


The locomotives pulling the Gulf Coast Inspection Train wear a smart paint scheme


A costumed group poses beside the train in Pensacola


A man shows his support before the morning send-off from Pensacola


The front of the Pensacola station looks as it did when the Sunset Limited ran


A well attended rally starts day two off on a good note


Water hoses used to service the Sunset Limited remain on the Pensacola platform


“Pacific Cape”, a former Union Pacific sleeping car, serves multiple purposes today


Amtrak office car “Beech Grove”, running platform forward, at Pensacola


A painting of the “Beech Grove” in Philadelphia adorns a bulkhead in its namesake car


Escambia Bay moments after departing the Pensacola station


A quiet beach along Escambia Bay


Passing below the twin I-10 bridges that cross Escambia Bay


Moments before beginning passage over the CSX bridge over Escambia Bay (left), the parallel I-10 bridge is visible at right


The tall I-10 bridge over Escambia Bay seen from the impressive CSX bridge


Sailboats moored in a little harbor on the east side of Escambia Bay

An impromptu stop was made in Milton to detrain local dignitaries then the train’s passage surprised a couple of men in a fishing boat near the Blackwater River drawbridge.  An enthusiastic crowd awaited our arrival in Crestview accompanied by the high school concert band.  We met a westbound CSX freight a half hour later, the third freight train encountered in 90 minutes.  As they had done throughout the trip, the CSX dispatchers gave Amtrak the main line to allow it to meet its schedule.  Meanwhile, a car paced the train on parallel US 90 with its passenger shooting video of the train for several miles as we rolled eastward.    A passenger in the dome car smiled as he recounted an official approaching his wife and him at Pensacola and offering them guest badges to ride.  He put his wife on the train then drove to Crestview to pick her up then they traded places so he could ride to Chipley.  This excellent public relations move had been conceived before departure from Pensacola and repeated throughout the day much to the pleasure of a lucky few.


The former L&N Milton depot today houses a railroad museum


Fishermen near the Blackwater River drawbridge


The Crestview stop draws a sizeable crowd


The rear of the inspection train at Crestview

The small town of DeFuniak Springs produced an impressive turnout despite not being a stop for the special.  Local police cars guarded the grade crossings in town and residents lined the tracks to watch the inspection train pass at reduced speed.  One  resident held a sign imploring “Amtrak Stop Here!” while another sign simply stated “DeFuniak Wants Amtrak”.  Five ladies waved enthusiastically as we rolled through the tiny community of Westville.  Other folks sat in lawn chairs in front of houses or stood in random middle of nowhere places to witness Amtrak’s return even if just for the day. 


Enthusiasm is on display as the train passes through DeFuniak Springs


Inside dome car “Ocean View”


Supporters are visible in random rural spots such as this group between DeFuniak Springs and Chipley

In another déjà vu happening, a tremendous crowd met the inspection train in Chipley just as they had done for the 1993 Sunset Limited inaugural.  Supporters held signs stating “Chipley Loves Amtrak” and one man held a sign “Panama City Beach Welcomes Amtrak”.  It is worth noting that Panama City Beach is a resort area about one hour south of Chipley.  A few minutes east of Chipley we crossed the Bay Line route from Panama City to Dothan, AL at Cottondale then proceeded through Marianna, Grand Ridge, and Sneads.  After crossing the Apalachicola River and entering the Eastern Time Zone, the special stopped at the yard office in Chattahoochee to pick up a relief crew which would take over if and when our operating crew’s hours of service expired.


Locals greet members of the Southern Rail Commission at Chipley


Support comes from Panama City Beach, an hour south of Chipley


A variety of signs are held aloft during the stop in Chipley


Speeches and media sound bites welcome Amtrak back to Chipley


Residents of Washington County crowd the Chipley station grounds as they did 13 years earlier


The author with veteran Amtrak conductor D.K. Lee


Swampland between Sneads and Chattahoochee


The Apalachicola River forms the dividing line between the Central and Eastern time zones

Amtrak’s arrival had been championed in Tallahassee media for several days leading up to this day, yet one was left to wonder whether a large crowd would show up.  Mid afternoon on a Friday can be a tough act in city dominated by the state capitol, two major state universities, and a sizeable community college.  On top of that, it was opening day for the popular Florida State University baseball team and the midpoint of the state legislative session.  As the train rounded the curve leading to the station, the answer was a resounding “Amazing!” as a huge crowd mobbed the station grounds, lined the right-of-way before the station, huddled on the opposite side of the tracks, and spilled over to the old Seaboard/Seaboard Coast Line depot across the street.  A fire truck sprayed water in a high arc above the train while a high school band and cheerleaders from Florida State and Florida A&M Universities energized the crowd.  The station and platform area was adorned with red, white, and blue bunting representing Tallahassee’s status as an “All American City”.  Amtrak and Commission officials agreed this was the trip’s largest crowd, a fact that filled this writer with pride.


Approaching the Tallahassee station, these college apartments have been constructed since Amtrak last served the city


A fire truck salutes the inspection train as it arrives in Tallahassee


A terrific crowd is visible in many locations around the Tallahassee station


The Gulf Coast Inspection Train arrives in Tallahassee (Photo by Martin Balinsky)


Supporters are jammed under the platform canopy and in the driveway of the Tallahassee station


The author’s son (red shirt), his son’s wife, and friends welcome the inspection train to Tallahassee.


The grounds of the old Seaboard station host spillover from the Tallahassee crowd

A few miles east of Tallahassee the train passed beneath a hiking trail bridge that was not in existence when Amtrak last passed this way.  At least 20 people stood on the bridge to watch the inspection train, despite having to hike about a half mile from the nearest parking lot.  Another excited crowd gathered at Madison where the gazebo style station looked just like it did when trains # 1 and 2 last visited in 2005.  This stop was convenient for residents of many surrounding North Florida and South Georgia towns and the event gained attention in newspapers through the region.


Passing through woods east of Tallahassee at milepost 788


A hiking trail overpass east of Tallahassee, which did not exist when Amtrak last served the Capitol City, is crowded with spectators


The train is welcomed through Chaires, a Leon County community east of Tallahassee


The rear view from inspection car “American View” near Greenville, FL


A monitor above the rear window displays the train’s GPS location


The track inspection car offers an excellent view of track conditions with GPS and rear camera monitors above the window


A late afternoon crowd watches Amtrak’s arrival in Madison


A show of support in Madison which also serves surrounding Florida and Georgia communities


The Madison gazebo-style depot is decorated for the special event


A young enthusiast poses with the on board crew at Madison


New Orleans rail fan Andrew Lodriguss and on board crew during the Madison stop

Passing through Live Oak 35 minutes later found another surprising crowd lining the right-of-way as we eased by at a slow speed.  The Suwannee High School cheerleading squad could be seen among the crowd in a display of civic pride and support for Amtrak.  Soon the few of us still aboard were summoned to the dining car for a tasty meal prepared by a veteran dining car chef and served by City of New Orleans lead service attendant Deanna Faucheaux.  This was a nice opportunity to experience newly renovated Viewliner I diner # 8400 which has roamed Amtrak’s eastern routes for several years as prototype to the upcoming fleet of Viewliner II dining cars.


The author poses with Amtrak Vice President Joe McHugh


The refurbished interior of dining car 8400


The chef prepares a dish for guests to enjoy in the dining car

After the stop at Lake City where a sizeable crowd waited, the inspection train made a beeline for Jacksonville, its final destination.  As dusk fell we passed the Olustee Battlefield, site of a Civil War skirmish that is reenacted every spring.  After nightfall we crossed the diamonds at Baldwin where the former SAL Baldwin cutoff today hosts a large number of freight trains traveling from points north to downstate Florida.  As the lights of downtown Jacksonville came into view, the inspection train curved left at Honeymoon Wye and headed straight in to the Amtrak station in the northern suburbs at 7:19pm.  Another round of remarks were made for the benefit of the media and public assembled outside the station then the consist was split up for return to their next assignments. 


Supporters meet the train at Jacksonville

Aside from the enthusiastic crowds there was evidence of great potential for the region to be served by restored Amtrak service.  An overnight stay in New Orleans provided a chance to ride some of the Crescent City’s iconic streetcars, sample the excellent Holiday Inn Superdome hotel and its streetcar themed restaurant and stroll the French Quarter.  The Mississippi Gulf Coast gaming industry has continued to grow and minor league baseball has moved into Biloxi.  Mobile has expanded its port city status and Atmore has added the gaming industry at nearby Wind Creek Hotel and Casino.  Pensacola is home to the US Navy Blue Angels and the US Naval Aviation Museum while Tallahassee is home of Florida’s state capitol and two major universities.  Jacksonville features beautiful beaches, is headquarters for insurance companies and the CSX Railroad, and connecting point for Amtrak trains to the northeast.  Though the inspection train didn’t venture southward, actual service would continue to Orlando, home of Walt Disney World, Sea World, and multiple other theme parks.  In an upcoming story we will visit more of the communities along the route of the proposed Amtrak train and provide more suggestions for a visit to New Orleans.


The exterior of the Holiday Inn Superdome’s restaurant in New Orleans displays its streetcar motif


The interior of the restaurant at the Holiday Inn Superdome is decorated with this replica streetcar


The Holiday Inn Superdome is super convenient to New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal and area sights


The Loyola Avenue Streetcar passes the Holiday Inn Superdome and terminates near the Amtrak station

The Gulf Coast Inspection Train was a rousing success.  The crowds at each stop far exceeded anyone’s wildest dreams and the Amtrak officials seemed genuinely impressed.  The Southern Rail Commission had worked hard to get to this point and did an outstanding job of putting on a successful event.  The hard work is not over as now funding must be arranged and legwork must be done to keep Amtrak, CSX, and state and local partners on board.  Hopefully, the sound of “All Aboard” will echo from the platforms in the not too distant future, bringing passenger rail back to the Gulf Coast.


Southern Rail Commission