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Few details settled on New Orleans-Baton Rouge passenger rail service

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Gov. John Bel Edwards and Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson walk alongside a passenger train in New Orleans on April 23, 2022. (Governor’s Office photo)

This story was originally published by the Louisiana Illuminator.

While local officials have begun securing grants to build train platforms and stations for a proposed passenger rail line connecting Baton Rouge and New Orleans, many fundamental aspects of the project — such as where the trains will stop and how often they will run — remain unknown.

The intercity train proposal made headlines last month after state and local officials sent out press releases indicating the project took a step forward with the City of Gonzales having secured $20 million in grant money from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to build a train station. But Gonzales won’t get that money until other public and private entities get to work on their portions of the project.

“For a lot of this, Gonzales is going to be sitting on the sidelines waiting for the others to catch up,” said Scot Byrd, chief administrative officer for the City of Gonzales.

Ideas for the project have come from multiple sources in government and the private sector, each with its own opinion as to the ideal number of trains, number and locations of stops, frequency of trips, cost of tickets, types of trains and many other details that have yet to be worked out.

The Baton Rouge Area Foundation, which has advocated heavily for the project, proposes that the train service use the existing freight rail tracks between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. BRAF Vice President John Spain, who also sits on the Southern Rail Commission, said the state would have to enter into a contract with the private company that owns the tracks.

Rights to the tracks are likely to change as Canadian Pacific has plans to merge with the current owner Kansas City Southern.

The state transportation department is exploring BRAF’s recommendation, though Secretary Shawn Wilson said using freight tracks for passenger rail poses some challenges. The number of passenger trains and their frequency could be limited, he said.

BRAF proposes the service could start with offering twice-a-day service. The Sierra Club, which is also advocating for the project, wants at least eight trips a day. Wilson said Canadian Pacific has so far agreed to only one round-trip train a day, though nothing has been finalized.

“The reality is that one train a day, you’re not going to grow your ridership, and there are elements to how many trains a day you run because every time you run a passenger train, you’re disrupting freight services,” Wilson said. “It’s a very complex decision or discussion matrix to be able to resolve that, and of course, the more trains you run, the larger the subsidy.”

The Sierra Club’s Angelle Bradford said one train a day would exclude a lot of the working class and likely cater more to tourists, weekend travelers and sports fans attending LSU and New Orleans Saints games.

“It sounds more like a vacation train or a sports train but not something your average person would hop on, certainly not workers,” Bradford said.

Another concern with using the existing privately-owned tracks is determining the level of public control and oversight. It’s still unknown which entity, whether a government authority or private company, will have primary control of the passenger train service, Wilson said.

“Those are some of those due diligence issues that we’ll have to work out both in terms of what has to happen but also what roles we’re going to each play and what levels of accountability are going to be existing in that,” Wilson said.

So far, the state is considering contracting with Amtrak as the main operator and provider of the train cars, staff and equipment, Wilson said.

A third concern is the project’s timeline – or the lack of one. Wilson said there are several stretches of track that need significant repairs and improvements. Canadian Pacific might have to spearhead some of those improvements, and the state is exploring federal grants for others, he said.

One stretch of track runs through a golf course where carts regularly cross the tracks, while another stretch floods during heavy rains, Wilson said.

“There are some legitimate concerns from a safety standpoint,” he said. “There’s some other stretches where in certain weather conditions, the track goes under water, which is not safe for freight or passenger rail.“

One major improvement will be the long stretch over the Bonnet Carré Spillway, though Wilson said no one wants to wait for that to be completed because it would likely take about three years. Instead, some want the train to begin as a shorter connection from Baton Rouge before connecting to New Orleans, he said.

“Most important thing I know is until you get a train from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, you really don’t start to build ridership and take advantage of it,” Wilson said.

Bradford said the state should explore the option of purchasing a line of track outright or constructing a new line so that it won’t have to rely on Canadian Pacific. She said it could be a viable option with funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Currently, the Department of Transportation and Development is conducting studies to determine all the capital improvements that would be needed and to gather data on the levels of ridership and the financial subsidy needed to sustain the train service. Those studies, as well as the environmental permitting process, will largely dictate the number of trains, their frequency of travel and locations for stops.

“Assuming it might require us to pay about $15 million a year to subsidize the service, at $5 a ticket or $8 a ticket, whatever that equates out to be, if I ran two trains, those numbers will effectively increase,” Wilson said. “And we then have to factor in how will the ridership increase, so it’s just a lot of moving parts.”

Wilson could not give an estimate for when Louisiana might see the first passenger train between Baton Rouge and New Orleans but said the DOTD plans to complete its initial studies in about six to nine months.