Elizabeth King is a freelance writer based in Buenos Aires. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Time Magazine, and Quartz.
Hundreds of towns and cities would lose rail service under President Trump’s proposed budget—and some of them have few other options.
The Amtrak station in Mobile, Alabama closed in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina flooded it. The storm wiped out passenger rail service across the Gulf Coast region, closing stations between Florida and Louisiana. Mobile’s waterlogged station was razed in 2007.
The loss of the Gulf Coast service left Mobile residents who don’t drive with fewer transportation options. While there’s an airport within a half-hour’s drive, it’s quite expensive to fly out of the city: A flight from Mobile to Orlando can cost up to $500. Meanwhile, bus lines have decreased service, too, due to budget problems.
But in recent years, there have been signs of life for restored rail service. In 2016, Mobile received a $125,00 grant from the Southern Rail Commission (SRC)—a group that promotes railway travel and distributes federal grants—to build a new station. Knox Ross, the secretary/treasurer of the SRC, says that funds previously earmarked for safety upgrades were repurposed for improvements, and Mobile received a 50/50 match grant from the SRC to rebuild their lost station. Even some of the state’s GOP leaders have backed the proposal. A new Amtrak station would be an integral part of the town’s economic redevelopment, according to Ross, and would help the city attract young people, as well as help older residents travel around.
The forward motion was cause for celebration by local residents: Alabama.com reported that when an inspection train rolled through the city in 2016, two men, Jim Gilbert and Tim Lloyd, greeted it with American flags. Thousands of people came out to support the train, says Jim Mathews, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP). “Folks there are very eager to restore the service,” Mathews says.
Now, that progress is in doubt. In his federal budget blueprint released in March, President Trump has proposed major funding cuts for Amtrak, forcing service disruptions that would be felt everywhere from rural towns to mid-sized and big cities. In total, nixing federal funding for Amtrak’s long-distance routes would cut rail service in 220 cities across 23 states, eliminating a mode of transit used by 144.6 million travelers a year, according to the NARP. Amtrak received $1.385 billion in federal funds in 2016.
If Trump has his way with the federal budget, it will spell certain doom for Mobile’s plans for a new Amtrak station. Some of the funds are safe despite any proposed federal cuts, because they were previously earmarked. However, “if the long distance network was shut down, the new station wouldn't be used anyways. Our long-term goal is travel between New Orleans and Orlando,” Ross explains.
Mobile isn’t the only town with a lot to lose if the federal government chops Amtrak funding. Nearly 916 miles north of Mobile in Chicago, the Empire Builder line—one of Amtrak’s most popular routes—connects Chicago to the Pacific Northwest, making the Windy City a vital Midwest access point for cross-country travel. Throughout 2016, 3,247,117 passengers departed or arrived to Chicago via Amtrak. A loss of federal backing could also translate to “significant” job losses in Chicago, which employs most of Amtrak’s 1,415 Illinois employees, according to Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari.
Meanwhile, the federal budget also proposes to cut funding for buses, bike paths, and local commuter trains, which will mean fewer transit options for the same number of people. “Basically Trump has said that if you don’t drive, you don’t deserve federal money,” says Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association.
This mobility issue is especially important in small towns with few transit options. Mathews cites Wolf Point, Montana, a small town with a population of 2,835. There is no Greyhound station, airport, or ride-hailing service like Uber in Wolf Point. Wishram, Washington—a town of only 342 people as of the 2010 Census—also has an Amtrak stop on the Empire Builder line. The Wishram stop was boarded and disembarked upon 1,330 times in 2016, according to Amtrak data. Like Wolf Point, Wishram has no other easily accessible mode of public transit.
However, driving isn’t an option for many Amtrak customers, according to Mathews. “Roughly 25 percent of Amtrak passengers are elderly” and can’t or don’t like to drive, he says. The loss of passenger rail will leave residents of rural towns without options if they want to visit family or receive medical care out of town. For some small towns, losing Amtrak service would render them “completely cut off from the world,” Mathews says.
It’s now up to Congress to decide what happens with Amtrak funding, and the clock is ticking. A short-term funding bill will likely avoid a government shutdown this week, but what ultimately happens in the final budget is still uncertain. Mathews says that hundreds of NARP members have been calling and writing their representatives to express concerns over a loss of passenger rail service.
And Southern rail travel advocates are still on a mission to bring Amtrak back to Mobile, even with the budget cuts looming. Ross says that he and and his SRC colleagues were on their way to Mobile for a meeting with local stakeholders, including the city’s mayor. He says there’s still a lot of support for the Amtrak in Mobile and across the Gulf Coast. "It's standing-room-only in a lot of these meetings," Ross says. "There’s a real desire to get the train back."