U.S., Amtrak: The potential of the Meridian Speedway all the way to Fort Worth and El Paso . . . it’s about time, and a new approach

The eastbound Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle combined train at El Paso, Texas. Russ Jackson photo.

By Russ Jackson and Anthony Lee, Guest Contributors; December 2, 2022

Think about it: 66 billion dollars. In the bill that authorized this money for Amtrak the congress wrote about the guaranteed funding and what it was to be spent on: improving the existing passenger rail system rather than needless expansion or other ideas.

So, what is Amtrak planning to do with it? Amtrak published the Connect US plan that will spend lots of money on studies, studies, and more studies to convince states they should buy into short distance routes into their cities at their eventual expense. Amtrak says that plan is their future, and nothing else outside the Northeast Corridor. The end result could be the end of the long distance/inter-regional trains out here in what they think of as flyover country.

There are two new projects outside the NEC. One is New Orleans to Mobile on the Gulf Coast line. Only in the last few days, after years of haggling, has that project been agreed to by all parties.

The other is Meridian, Mississippi to Fort Worth. The anticipated acquisition of the Kansas City Southern Railroad by Canadian Pacific Railway has included looking at its line from Meridian to Fort Worth for a new passenger route. Amtrak seems to indicate the states will pay for it, while it really should be a national system train.

There are other projects that would qualify as national system trains that would meet the Congress definition, but let’s look at this one. The map below shows where it would go, converting the green bus service line that runs that route now into a train.

Amtrak route map.
Texas and Pacific Railway illustration.

The map on the bottom shows where it SHOULD ALSO go, from Fort Worth to El Paso to maximize its potential. In Anthony Lee’s description below, it’s laid out how and why this would work, with increased revenue passenger miles. Just think Atlanta to Tucson or Monroe to Abilene tickets. It’s about time to think globally about what creates the greatest benefit for passengers while simultaneously the greatest possibility of revenue.

Literally decades ago, when restored service from Meridian to Dallas was first proposed, the vehicle for the expansion was the Crescent which operates from New York Pennsylvania Station to Atlanta and New Orleans via Meridian. *See Note 1 at the end of this article for details about the Meridian Speedway from Wikipedia.

The proposal was to send a combined train from New York Penn to Meridian, and then split the train, sending half to Dallas and half continuing on to the traditional end terminal of New Orleans over Norfolk Southern Railway tracks.

Kansas City Southern Railroad map showing its Meridian Speedway and freight railroad connections. KCS image.

Meridian was chosen because it was the eastern endpoint of what was dubbed the Meridian Speedway, jointly operated by Norfolk Southern Railway and Kansas City Southern Railroad. The newly upgraded Meridian Speedway was created as a fast piece of track to accommodate hurrying intermodal trains and other hotshot business. It made great sense to add a speedy passenger train to the mix.

A 2018 photo of the northbound Crescent in Birmingham, Alabama. Birmingham, one of the ultimate railroad cities of the South, has major Norfolk Southern tracks running through the heart of the city. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The idea of using the Crescent was based on the previous success in the 1990s of the Gulf Breeze, which operated from New York Penn as part of the Crescent to Birmingham, Alabama, then was split and sent south via CSX through Montgomery and into a final terminal of Mobile. The Gulf Breeze, which name was a riff on the former Seaboard Air Line/Louisville & Nashville Gulf Wind which also operated via Mobile from Jacksonville, Florida to New Orleans was a successful operation, but was discontinued in one of Amtrak’s many cost-cutting moves. *See Note 2 at the end of this article for details about the Gulf Breeze from Wikipedia.

The southbound Gulf Breeze and Crescent have been separated at Birmingham, Alabama and await departure for Mobile and New Orleans. Marty Bernard photo from Railroad Pictures Archives.

The template was there for the Meridian Speedway train to Dallas. The Crescent was the vehicle to economically create new service while bolstering the finances of one of Amtrak’s single-level inter-regional trains.

The Meridian, Mississippi Amtrak station, opened in 1997, formally the Meridian Multi-Modal Transportation Center. It has two platforms and three tracks and is owned by the City of Meridian. In addition to a transportation center, it is a popular local venue for social and business events. The station currently served the daily Crescent. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Now, a new plan makes more sense, with the possibility of adding a Crescent-based second frequency in the future.

This plan would split a daily eastbound Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle at El Paso, Texas instead of the current location of San Antonio with a section that would then operate on the Union Pacific’s upgraded former Texas & Pacific Railroad line to Fort Worth, and then continue on to Meridian, providing through-passengers a connection to the Crescent and travel to the Southeast and east coast.

Los Angeles to El Paso is 647 miles, the same distance as El Paso to Dallas or Washington, D.C. to Atlanta.

The other Sunset Limited section would continue on its regular route from El Paso to New Orleans, with some day the hope of operating to Jacksonville and Orlando again, with no exchange of cars to the Texas Eagle at San Antonio as is currently done.

The westbound Sunset Limited on the famous Huey P. Long bridge over the mighty Mississippi River, leaving New Orleans and headed west to Houston, San Antonio, El Paso and Los Angeles in 1999. Internet photo.

Connections at Fort Worth/Dallas would be improved for the Texas Eagle, and with the Heartland Flyer and its hopeful eventual extension to Newton, Kansas and a connection to the Southwest Chief. The 1960 Texas & Pacific Western Star timetable showed its train departed El Paso at 3:25 pm, arrived in Fort Worth at 6:10 am enroute to Dallas, then on the Missouri Pacific Railroad to Saint Louis, as the Texas Eagle does today.

A contemporary view of the Fort Worth Central Station which serves Amtrak, Greyhound, TEXRail and Trinity Railway Express (TRE). Forth Worth is served by the Texas Eagle and Heartland Flyer daily Amtrak trains. Great American Stations photo.

Westbound departure from Fort Worth was at 10:00 pm with arrival in El Paso at 12:50 pm. At Meridian it would connect to the Crescent. The new train would run twice daily, according to the meeting described below, but we suggest the second train turn at Fort Worth. These new trains would be most effective if the Sunset Limited was daily, of course. It’s about time. 

This new route and extension should use funds from the $66 billion allocated by the congress for the national rail network on routes that also were discontinued in 1971. Equipment for the new train service and extension would be Superliner equipment that currently runs on the Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle. Trains would be maintained and serviced in Los Angeles, El Paso, and Fort Worth. At Meridian there is a layover track, while the station track at El Paso could be used. Superliners that are being used on mid-western corridors are going to be replaced with new equipment for corridor service and could be available, with new locomotives replacing the existing P42s. This new route, Meridian to Dallas, is mainly Class 4 track and has PTC and CTC signaling and train control. Class 4 track is rated a maximum speed of 60 mph for freight trains and 80 mph for passenger trains.

Senator Bill Cassidy

Amtrak ran a “test” train on the route from El Paso to Fort Worth a few years ago to enthusiastic local interest. There is limited intercity bus service in West Texas. Why not expand into revenue-generating new routes like this plan? Its entire route contains rapidly growing areas of Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. New cities would get rail service, like Midland-Odessa, Abilene, Shreveport, Monroe, Vicksburg, and connect with the City of New Orleans at Jackson and the Crescent at Meridian, creating an attractive matrix theory result. That makes it a transcontinental train that would improve the numbers for the Crescent south of Atlanta. Quicker times from Dallas to the West Coast, too. The possibilities are limitless.

Jackson, Mississippi Amtrak Station, exclusively used by the daily City of New Orleans. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith
Senator Roger Wicker

On November 4, 2022, the Southern Rail Commission, local, and national officials from Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Alabama met in Monroe, Louisiana, to discuss this project. U.S. Senators Bill Cassidy (Republican, Louisiana) and Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith (Republicans, Mississippi) were there to express their support for it if the Canadian Pacific-Kansas City Southern merger is approved.

This project has the approval of the railroad in advance, something other proposals don’t have. Is this “needless expansion”? These folks wouldn’t say so. With all this support, let’s get it going. It’s about time.

*Note 1: The Meridian Speedway, Wikipedia:

“The Meridian Speedway is a 320-mile span of railroad track between Meridian, Mississippi, and Shreveport, Louisiana. An important rail link between the Southeast and Southwest U.S., it is owned by the Meridian Speedway LLC (MSLLC), a joint venture of Kansas City Southern (KCS), the majority partner; and Alabama Great Southern Railroad, a subsidiary of Norfolk Southern Railway.

Platform area of the Meridian, Mississippi Amtrak station. Tracks headed to the left to go New Orleans on Norfolk Southern Railway, but this connection could also be to the Meridian Speedway headed to Shreveport, Louisiana and Dallas and Fort Worth with connecting track to El Paso, Texas. Meridian is currently served by Amtrak’s daily Crescent. Foresquare photo.

“The Speedway was originally two railroads: the Alabama and Vicksburg Railway built the section from Meridian to Vicksburg, while the Vicksburg, Shreveport and Pacific Railway built the section from Vicksburg to Shreveport. Together they were known as the “Vicksburg Route.”

Meridian, Mississippi cannot be discussed without recognizing the late Gil Carmichael, former Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration during the George H.W. Bush administration. Afterward, he served as Chairman of the Amtrak Reform Board from 1997 to 2002. Corridor Rail Development Executive Chairman James Coston served simultaneously as Vice Chairman with Mr. Carmichael on the board. Mr. Carmichael was perhaps one of Meridian’s most forward citizens and businessmen in addition to politics. He was known and respected by all as a true gentleman who was a friend to all and savvy businessman who first introduced the Volkswagen Beetle in the 1961 to Mississippi through his car dealership. Meridian Star photo.

“These railroads, as well as others forming a line from New Orleans, Louisiana, through Meridian to Cincinnati, Ohio, were joined in 1881 to form the Queen and Crescent Route, controlled by the Alabama, New Orleans, Texas and Pacific Junction Railways Company, Limited.

“In 1926, the Vicksburg Route was leased by the Illinois Central Railroad, which was renamed Illinois Central Gulf in 1972. In 1986, ICG divested itself of the line when it spun off MidSouth Rail Corporation. In 1993, KCS acquired the line as part of its purchase of MidSouth.

“On December 2, 2005, KCS and NS announced their agreement to form a joint venture. KCS contributed the rail line, NS $300 million in cash, almost all of which was slated for capital improvements to increase capacity and improve transit times. The U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) completed its regulatory review on April 10, 2006; KCS and NS closed the deal on May 1. By September 2007, about $135 million had been spent on the improvements. Several new and longer passing sidings were installed along with a new CTC signaling system. The mainline was effectively rebuilt from the ground up with new ballast, crossties and heavier welded rail.

“Soon after this first round of improvements, about 45 trains per day traversed the line.

“In 2022, a proposal was made for passenger service on this line from Dallas to Meridian.

“Today, the line sees fewer than 15 trains per day, mostly run-through Kansas City Southern intermodal trains.”

*Note 2: The Gulf Breeze, from Wikipedia:

“The Gulf Breeze was a daily passenger train operated by Amtrak between New York City and Mobile, Alabama, as a section of the Crescent. The two trains split in Birmingham, with the Gulf Breeze serving an additional seven stations in Alabama on a 275-mile route south to the Gulf Coast. Service ran from 1989 until 1995.

The northbound Crescent at the Birmingham, Alabama Amtrak station in 2009. Birmingham was where the Gulf Breeze was split/joined from/to the Crescent as the Crescent continued southwest to New Orleans on Norfolk Southern Railway tracks and the Gulf Breeze turned south and headed to Mobile, Alabama via Montgomery, Alabama’s capital city on the former Louisville & Nashville Railroad/now CSX route. The station shown in this photo has since been replaced with a new, modern structure. Wikimedia Commons photo.

“Amtrak introduced the Gulf Breeze on October 27, 1989 as a section of the Crescent (New York City–New Orleans). Costs of operation were split between Amtrak and the state, with the latter contributing about $1.3 million per year. Annual ridership in FY 1994, the last full year of operation, was 7,737. In December 1994 Amtrak announced that the Gulf Breeze would be discontinued as part of a broad cost-cutting measure which saw other services eliminated or reduced. The last Gulf Breeze ran on 1 April 1995, and was replaced by bus service.

“Later that year attempts were made under the auspices of the Southern High Speed Rail Commission to resurrect the Gulf Breeze as a Mobile–New Orleans service, sharing part of the Sunset Limited’s route. This was eventually realized as the Gulf Coast Limited, a joint effort between Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana which operated 1996–1997.

CSX main line tracks go right through the middle of the Arthur C. Outlaw Convention Center in Mobile, Alabama. The former Louisville & Nashville Railroad tracks were there before the convention center, so the tracks were accommodated with the design of the convention center. To the left not shown in the photo was the site of the former Amtrak/L&N passenger station, which was demolished after Hurricane Katrina. These tracks will soon host two new daily Amtrak roundtrips between New Orleans and Mobile now that Amtrak, CSX and Norfolk Southern have reached an agreement which the federal Surface Transportation Board has blessed to allow for safe operation of passenger trains and freight trains between the two terminal cities. In the past, Mobile was a station stop on Seaboard Air Line Railroad/L&N’s Gulf Wind before Amtrak, then the tri-weekly Sunset Limited before Hurricane Katrina and the daily Gulf Coast Limited for a short period of time. Richard Strandberg photo.

“The Gulf Breeze split from the Crescent at Birmingham and ran south through Montgomery to Mobile on the Gulf of Mexico, while the Crescent continued southwest through Mississippi to New Orleans. At the time Mobile was served also by the Sunset Limited (Orlando, Florida–Los Angeles, California).

The northbound Amtrak Floridian in 1974 headed from Miami, Florida to Chicago. The former Louisville & Nashville Railroad station was already being downsized by the time this photo was taken. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Amtrak’s Floridian, from Chicago to Miami, Florida via Montgomery was Amtrak’s last train to serve Alabama’s capital until the train was discontinued in 1979. This 1975 photo shows a southbound train which was longer than the massive trainshed. When the Gulf Breeze started serving Montgomery in 1989 the former L&N station had already been put in private hands and was not available for use by the new train. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The former L&N Montgomery, Alabama station has been turned into elegant office space. The restored trainshed had been turned into a covered parking lot for the facility. The CSX tracks are to the left of the trainshed in this photo. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The former Montgomery, Alabama Union Station is now an upscale office facility which also has some public spaces. Two major hotels are part of the overall station complex along with open park space. Wikimedia Commons photo.

“The Gulf Breeze served the following communities, in southbound order:

  • Birmingham, Alabama
  • Montgomery, Alabama
  • Greenville, Alabama
  • Evergreen, Alabama
  • Brewton, Alabama
  • Atmore, Alabama
  • Bay Minette, Alabama
  • Mobile, Alabama
The northbound Gulf Breeze in 1990 at Montgomery, Alabama. A station facility for the Gulf Breeze was constructed along the CSX tracks across the tracks from the original L&N station; the old station’s trainshed roof is shown on the left in this photo. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The southbound Gulf Breeze in 1995 at Montgomery. The station for the Gulf Breeze was part of the silo complex. Wikimedia Commons photo.

“Of these, Birmingham is still served by the Crescent, while Mobile and Atmore were served by the Sunset Limited prior to Hurricane Katrina, which saw the shortening of that line to New Orleans. The remainder no longer have passenger rail service.”

Editor’s Note: Readers of this space are familiar with the writings of Russ Jackson, the venerable retired editor of the Western Rail Passenger Review. Mr. Jackson is joined for the offering by Anthony Lee who retired from the California Department of Transportation. Mr. Lee grew up in Oceanside, California and was a founding member of RaiPAC, the Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada, when he was 13 years old. ‒ Corridorrail.com Editor

Duke University Library collection illustration.
Please share with others