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The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) earlier this week presented to Congress a final report on restoring Amtrak service along the U.S. Gulf Coast.Prepared by the Gulf Coast Working Group, the report estimates that the capital costs for restoring the service would be $118 million. The group was formed through the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act, which was signed into law in December 2015. The group's appointees include representatives from Amtrak, CSX, FRA, and the Southern Rail Commission (SRC), as well as more than 30 regional stakeholders."We are encouraged that FRA has found that rail service can begin quickly and at a reasonable cost," said SRC Chairman Greg White in a press release. "The SRC is grateful for the unified political and grassroots support the restoration of Gulf Coast passenger-rail service has received from mayors to governors to the Gulf south's congressional delegation."The working group recommended two preferred service options: daily long-distance service between New Orleans and Orlando, Florida, along with daily regional trains between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, according to the report.Annual operating costs for the Orlando-New Orleans route would be $5.48 million, while the New Orleans-Mobile route would cost $4 million each year.Amtrak suspended its Gulf Coast service east of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.The report also outlines capital improvements associated with launching services. Funding for those improvements could come from the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements Program or the Restoration and Enhancement Grant Program, according to the SRC.However, new legal requirements still stand in the way of restoring Amtrak service, according to a letter CSX Assistant Vice President for Passenger Operations David Dech wrote to The Times-Picayune.For example, current federal regulations require that passenger trains run on schedule at each station at least 80 percent of the time. During the last year of Amtrak's Gulf Coast service, trains ran on time only 7 percent of the time, Dech wrote. In addition, there are 17 drawbridges along the route where essential maritime traffic gets priority over trains."As a result, it is virtually impossible to design a service that would reliably meet customer expectations or comply with the law," Dech said. "No plan proposed by the Gulf Coast Working Group would come close to the 80 percent on-time performance requirement. Failing to meet that standard would result in many disappointed customers and would prevent CSX from complying with the law."What's more, CSX officials maintain that there are $2.3 billion worth of infrastructure improvements needed to support passenger service, according to the working group's report.For their part, SRC officials have decried CSX's estimates as "unjustifiable cost demands.""We cannot allow an unsupported, unreasonable demand by CSX to overturn long-established law and veto a passenger-rail service supported by the people and leadership of the coastal South," SRC's White wrote in a May 25 letter to the FRA.
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