A number of residents and public officials see the benefits of returning passenger rail to Crestview and neighboring communities, but only if changes are made to the old Amtrak model.
CRESTVIEW — An Amtrak passenger train's Feb. 19 arrival, even if for 10 minutes, has train travel supporters hoping the whistle stop is a sign of things to come.
“We used to have the best train service in the world in the U.S.,” Austin Hobart said. “Then we dismantled it.”
Hobart wants his kids to experience the sort of fun he had growing up in the northeast, where he and his family and friends would take the train into “the city” for cultural pursuits and shopping.
But only if they could catch the train at a “decent hour.”
“Who wants to go to the station at 3 in the morning?” Hobart said. “And it has to be faster than driving. If it takes two hours to get to Pensacola, you might as well just drive.”
Like Hobart, Karsten Magee, whose father is German, also traveled by Eurail with his family, and would welcome a comparable passenger train service in north Florida.
“In Europe, you'll find passenger service used on a daily basis to quickly get from place to place, all without the hassles of driving, dealing with traffic, or driving in inclement weather,” Magee said.
Amtrak cautions against comparing European and American trains.
“That’s apples and oranges,” Amtrak Government Affairs south district Senior Manager Todd Stennis said. “It’s an entirely different culture.”
“We Americans would have to learn to leave our cars at home, which is what people in Europe are used to doing," he said.
That would require residents to see rail travel's benefits, State Rep. Doug Broxson, District 3, said.
“We’ve got to move from having one person in every car,” he said. “The economy of doing this (traveling by train) is really incredible. "I think it is a great opportunity for our families to go places without having to take the car.”
Amtrak officials said Gulf Coast rail passengers wouldn’t suffer the notoriously poor Miami to Los Angeles Sunset Limited service. The train served Crestview until Hurricane Katrina infrastructure damage caused its indefinite suspension.
Amtrak itself is among the train’s critics.
“Tri-weekly service and historically poor on-time performance have turned away potential customers,” a 2010 Amtrak service improvement plan stated, noting the train’s on-time rate was less than 5 percent.
“It can’t stop here at 3 a.m. and expect to attract passengers,” Crestview Mayor David Cadle said of the proposed new service.
But the Sunset Limited and its challenges are not part of the Gulf Coast rail service restoration evaluation, Stennis said.
“That is not going to be a model for this service,” he said.
“Reintroducing passenger rail service is about connecting our region and its many attractions together, helping to make the entire region even more competitive nationally and globally,” Southern Rail Commission spokesman Dan Dealy stated in an email to Northwest Florida mayors.
“We want to add opportunities to be connected with the rest of the nation, for people to come visit us and enjoy our wonderful Gulf Coast hospitality, our beaches, resorts, diverse entertainment, culture, food and music."
To do that, connecting public transportation to those attractions from the train stations is needed, Hobart said.
“We will need the connectivity from Crestview down to the south end of the county, but I’m optimistic we can fill that gap and provide that service,” Okaloosa County District 3 Commissioner Nathan Boyles said.
Railroading enthusiast Cal Zethmayr of WAAZ-WJSB radio said connecting from a train is no different than arriving by plane.
“You do the same thing,” Zethmayr said. “You rent a car or take a taxi.”
ON (CSX) TRACK
Like the Sunset Limited, a restored Gulf Coast rail service, would use track owned by freight railroad CSX, which rebuilt damaged lines and bridges after Katrina, but, according to Amtrak, not up to passenger rail standards.
“Re-introducing passenger rail along this line would involve extensive computer-based modeling to assess capacity on this route, identification of infrastructure improvements needed to support the proposed service, potential additional safety requirements and funding considerations for operating and capital costs,” CSX corporate communications spokeswoman Kristin Seay stated in a media release.
Seay stated CSX would participate in the passenger rail restoration venture if it had “adequate funding requiring no subsidy by CSX shareholders, and reasonable liability protection against new risks.”
Local and regional officials believe the proposed rail service can be a success if challenges like scheduling, track sharing with freight trains and connections at the stations can be conquered.
“Intercity passenger rail service will help make our Gulf Coast an even better place to live for all of our citizens, young and old, rich and poor, retirees, millennials, and everyone in between,” Dealy wrote.