Amtrak Has Big Dreams. But Freight Lines Have Other Ideas President Biden has aspirations for a new era of train travel. Amtrak supporters hope that a new line between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, is just the start. But major obstacles stand in the way.
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With A Friend In Biden, Amtrak Has Big Dreams. But Freight Lines Have Other Ideas

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With A Friend In Biden, Amtrak Has Big Dreams. But Freight Lines Have Other Ideas

With A Friend In Biden, Amtrak Has Big Dreams. But Freight Lines Have Other Ideas

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Amtrak wants Americans to fall back in love with train travel. The first step is adding a new line between New Orleans and Mobile, Ala., which is expected to start next year. Stephan Bisaha of the Gulf States Newsroom has more on what the trains need before they can leave the station.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: There's a lot of excitement for the new Amtrak line from the four Mississippi beach towns the train will stop at. One is Bay St. Louis. Wendy Hayden loves the romance of train travel.

WENDY HAYDEN: Oh, I'm thrilled. I can't wait. I'll be one of the first ones on it, going to Mobile (laughter).

BISAHA: Even better is what Amtrak would mean for her city. She points to a strip mall just across from the train depot. It used to be known for seedy bars and empty storefronts. Now new businesses are popping up in part because of the Amtrak plans.

HAYDEN: They're going to have another restaurant, I think, next door. I don't know what this is going to be on the end, but they have a Pilates place going in, and they have a place that's called BoneJour. It's a dog store.

BISAHA: A study by the University of Southern Mississippi says tourists riding the line could bring hundreds of millions of dollars to Mississippi's economy each year. President Joe Biden, also known as Amtrak Joe, says passenger rails should play a key part in rebuilding the nation's economy. His initial infrastructure plan calls for $80 billion for Amtrak repairs and new routes. But here's a key sticking point. More Amtrak trains could cause problems for another vital part of the U.S. economy - the freight train industry. That worries Judith Adams of the Alabama State Port Authority.

JUDITH ADAMS: It was how America was built, and our commerce in the United States is dependent upon that rail.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN SCREECHING)

BISAHA: At the Port of Mobile, train tracks weave between stacks of shipping containers and piles of coal before making their way to the docks. This place is an economic powerhouse for Alabama. Giant cranes unload car parts and copper off cargo ships hundreds of feet long. Forklifts unpack iron and peanuts from trains that stretch from miles. Adams says a passenger train sharing the same railroad to New Orleans would just clog up that supply chain.

ADAMS: Yes, it would get disrupted if there were congestions or delays at the port.

BISAHA: Most of the country's railroad tracks are not owned by Amtrak but private companies that make a lot of their money from freight. Adams says if one of those new passenger trains delays a freight train...

ADAMS: Then the ship waits. If the ship waits, that costs our shippers.

BISAHA: But Amtrak supporters say there's plenty of room on the rails for both freight and passenger trains. Jim Mathews is the president of the Rail Passengers Association, which advocates for Amtrak.

JIM MATHEWS: We're operating so many fewer trains now than we used to that it's just - unless we're talking about, you know, tripling or quadrupling the number of trains all around the United States, which we're not, the argument really doesn't hold up.

BISAHA: Both sides agree the tracks between Mobile and New Orleans need upgrading but disagree on the cost. The Federal Railroad Administration estimates it'll be about 100 million in state and federal dollars. The company that owns the railroad says it'll cost billions.

It's more than just opposition from freight trains keeping Americans from having a European-style passenger train network. There's culture. Americans just aren't used to hopping on trains. Our cities are stretched far apart, so planes just make more sense. They're faster, sometimes even cheaper. But Mathews argues Amtrak can offer routes for communities ignored by major airlines, like Memphis and Cincinnati.

MATHEWS: Those are significant cities, and yet they've lost a lot of air service because the airlines just don't want to serve a lot of smaller communities.

BISAHA: Even if Biden's infrastructure plan were to become law, Amtrak would have to spend a lot of that money fixing existing lines overdue for repair rather than building new ones. So the route to Biden's Amtrak golden age dream will not be an express.

For NPR News, I'm Stephan Bisaha in Birmingham.

(SOUNDBITE OF IHF'S "DEPARTURE")

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