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Mobile City Councilor Calls Amtrak a “Joy Ride for the Affluent"

February 19, 2021

by Jim Mathews, Rail Passengers President & CEO

A vote in the Mobile City Council over funding a study for a new station served as another flashpoint for Alabama’s politicians over the merits of the Gulf Coast rail restoration. Unfortunately, the anti-passenger rail opponents trotted out the same tired old arguments: Amtrak is nothing more than a lavish thrill ride for the rich.

…Wait. Huh?

Yes, he said it. According to local reports, the question of whether to provide the $80,100 city-funded match for a federal grant led Councilman Joel Daves to dismiss the Mobile - New Orleans rail service as nothing more than a “joy ride for the affluent.” The Federal grant would cover half of the cost for an alternative site analysis, a necessary precursor to constructing a new train station for the city.

Fellow city councilman Fred Richardson chided Daves, pointing out that the city spends far more on other transportation modes — including a terminal for cruise ships(!). It’s unclear how this fact landed with Councilman Daves, as the vote was ultimately tabled until next week.

Yes it’s true that a lot of advocates these days focus their public ire on Amtrak’s degraded dining-car experience, for example. But it’s an unfair trope to conclude that the trains are really just “land cruises” for retired people just because passengers unhappy with the state of on-board service are among the most vocal of Amtrak’s critics.

The “land cruise” insult stings, particularly when advocates also work hard to foster broader discussions about service frequency, rolling stock, fares and accessibility. Anyone who’s actually been on an Amtrak train knows the real truth: it’s an essential, low-cost transportation alternative that a broad segment of the American public relies on to travel around the country.

For instance, take Amtrak’s Crescent service, which runs through Alabama on its way from New York City to New Orleans. The train makes 33 stops, 16 of which are on the Northeast Corridor. Of the remaining 17 communities the train serves, 15 fall below the national average for Median Household Income. Those passengers are less likely to be able to shift to air service if the train disappears — assuming they even have easy access to an airport. Without train service, the choice boils down to “drive long distances” or “stay home.”

The other half of Daves’ argument will be a bit more familiar to passenger advocates. The councilman asserted the Gulf Coast rail project is not a “viable transportation alternative,” and with only a handful of station stops it’s nothing more than an “amusement park on wheels.”

Councilman Richardson once again leapt into action, explaining network connectivity to his colleague.

“The track is from New Orleans to Mobile, but that is not the impact,” Richardson said. “It’s like saying if we had an interstate system that went from Mobile to New Orleans, that’s the end. No. They have other interstate systems in New Orleans that can take you to other places.”

That is true, and with connections to Amtrak’s City of New Orleans, Sunset, and Crescent there are an awful lot of places you’ll be able to go thanks to that Gulf Coast train. And that flow of people goes both ways: this train will open up Mobile as a viable tourism destination for hundreds of cities across the U.S.

And that’s the real argument supporting this train: it’s not a question of if trains make money, it’s about who trains make money for. Rail corridors generate value by acting as economic engines in the communities they serve—through jobs, retail, mobility, tourism and real-estate development. The “profit” goes not to Amtrak, but to the communities served, often to the tune of billions of dollars. In the case of Alabama, that “profit” would come to about $130 million a year in benefits to the state and to Mobile, according to a study by the University of Mississippi’s Trent Lott Center, a 23 to 1 return on the state’s investment.

Of course, there is a larger argument to be made in defense of Daves’ assertion, only with the opposite conclusion. New Orleans to Mobile is, in fact, an insufficient level of service, so we need to invest more. We should build something with much greater ambition by connecting the Gulf Coast rail corridor all the way to Florida, making the Sunset daily, and adding multiple frequencies for key city pairs. That certainly seems to be the plan under development in the White House and U.S. Department of Transportation.

So the real question for Mobile’s leaders is: when that infrastructure bill comes, will the city be ready to act upon it?