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Thursday, Jun 21, 2018
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Steve Otto Columns

Otto: As rail goes, Florida seems to be on a train to nowhere

There was a story this week that Amtrak was considering cutting a 600-mile stretch from its Southwest Chief that runs from Chicago to Los Angeles. The move would eliminate service to a dozen or more towns in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. Amtrak might reconsider if those four states cough up $4 million a year for the next 10 years to upgrade track and services.

I mention this because my wife was on the phone most of the evening trying to get a couple of tickets on Amtrak's Auto Train from Florida to Lorton, Va., just outside of Washington, D.C., in May.

She couldn't. Every day for almost an entire month all of the rooms were completely sold out. There were a few coach seats, but one of us snores like a banshee, and we figured if that person fell asleep we'd get tossed off somewhere south of Savannah.

Despite everything Amtrak and the government can do to make getting from point A to anywhere in this country difficult or impossible, ridership continues to increase. It has even gone up here in town despite having only one train roll through each day and another option if you want to take the bus from Tampa's Union Station to Orlando to catch the other train heading north.

It's not enough that we can't get anything from commuter rail to light rail despite years of political grandstanding. The other day the mayor even agreed with a citizen's group about the loud train tooting late at night from CSX hauling stuff out to Port Tampa Bay.

But it is the longer trains to the north and west that have been chopped from Florida — that's where we are getting hurt the most.

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The biggest loss came after Hurricane Katrina destroyed track and services between Jacksonville and New Orleans. Amtrak shut down the Sunset Limited, which at one time ran from Miami up the state and eventually all the way to Los Angeles. It was in effect, America's only true transcontinental train.

I rode it a couple of times taking our winning chili contest teams out to the world championships in the ghost town of Terlingua on the Texas-Mexican border. It was a great experience until Cowboy Chuck and his team brought a tarantula back on board and caused some minor chaos.

Apparently the repairs following Katrina were completed in only a few months, but Amtrak has used it as an excuse to not resume service east of New Orleans.

There are other issues. There has been discussion of extending Amtrak's train, the City of New Orleans, which already runs from Chicago to New Orleans by then taking it as far as Jacksonville and possibly on down our way. But that discussion has been going on since roughly the time Andrew Jackson pulled his soldiers out of New Orleans and nothing has happened.

You can throw in talk of running a train that connects Jacksonville to Macon and then Atlanta and eventually western North Carolina, but that's all it is, just talk.

There are any number of special interests that have little interest in seeing rail infrastructure. But you can only build so many more lanes for highways or clog so many airports.

Someday the U.S. will have a rail service that can move passengers anywhere in the country. It's just that you would like to see it happen before trains become the stuff of legend.

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