Baton Rouge-New Orleans Passenger Rail Service Advances

Written by Carolina Worrell, Senior Editor
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Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards on Oct. 26 joined Department of Transportation and Development Sec. Eric Kalivoda, Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner and other officials to sign a development agreement that will advance the return of intercity passenger rail service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, La.

The agreement, signed at New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal, “is a breakthrough for a project that has roots in 2008, when the idea was introduced through a concept study,” officials said. According to the agreement, passenger service could start as early as 2027.

Left to right: New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner. Amtrak photo.

Edwards says the state has secured $50 million to put toward improving the rail infrastructure between the two cities and is awaiting word on a $200 million federal grant, according to the Daily Report. While the latter is not a done deal, Edwards told the Daily Report that he is “confident based on his conversations with federal officials that Louisiana’s ‘compelling application’ will be successful and expects the award will be announced before Thanksgiving. We believe that by the middle of 2027, we will have daily round trips by passenger rail between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.”

Amtrak President Stephen Gardner. Amtrak photo

According to officials, Amtrak will use Canadian Pacific Kansas City (CPKC) and CN rights-of-way located along the I-10 corridor that are one of three routes connecting New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The CPKC/CN tracks, Amtrak says, were chosen because they were “the most direct and had less conflict with freight transportation.” The CPKC New Orleans Subdivision (former KCS) accounts for most of the routing. Trains, after traversing a short distance on CPKC’s Baton Rouge Subdivision (former KCS) would connect with CN’s McComb Subdivision at New Orleans Junction to reach New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal.

Railway Age on Jan. 6, 2022, reported that, subject to Surface Transportation Board (STB) approval of the CP-KCS merger, CP had committed to support the establishment of Amtrak service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The STB on March 15, 2023 approved CP’s acquisition of KCS to form CPKC, North America’s first transnational railroad.

”CP is pleased to continue to support Amtrak and its infrastructure projects to provide capacity needed to accommodate additional service,” said CP (now CPKC) President and CEO Keith Creel in 2022.

The last passenger train between the cities was KCS’s Southern Belle, which was discontinued in November 1969, one year before Amtrak’s creation.

KCS Southern Belle service was inaugurated on September 2, 1940. To promote the new train, KCS held a beauty contest to find “Miss Southern Belle,” whose photo would be used in advertising materials systemwide. Local competitions were held before the train’s launch in all of the cities that KCS served. The winner of the competition, Margaret Landry (1922-2005), was the winner of the local competition in Baton Rouge. She was selected at the final competition in New Orleans on August 24, 1940. Landry went on to a Hollywood movie acting career.

According to Amtrak, the currently unnamed planned service is scheduled to take 75-90 minutes, origin to destination, and will include the following stops:

  • Baton Rouge Downtown
  • Baton Rouge South
  • Gonzales
  • LaPlace
  • New Orleans Int’l Airport
  • Jefferson Parish (TBD)
  • New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal

The initial plan, Amtrak says, is for one round trip daily, expanding to two round trips daily later, pending evaluation of operations and potential railroad improvement needs. Additional round trips could be introduced in the future. Amtrak adds it will release schedules and fares closer to the launch of the new service.

According to officials, benefits of adding the service include “a reliable, safe alternative to driving, environmental quality with less vehicular traffic, economic development near stations, added jobs in multiple sectors, and emergency evacuation availability if needed.”

Infrastructure upgrades will begin in 2024 and can include replacing the existing CPKC rail bridge across the Bonnet Carré Spillway near Airline Highway pending the outcome of several federal discretionary grant applications submitted within the past year.

The new service, officials say, will connect with the New Orleans to Mobile Gulf Coast Corridor service projected to open in 2024. These routes will join the Sunset Limited, City of New Orleans, and Crescent lines in Amtrak’s Louisiana route schedule, all using the city-owned New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal and Amtrak facilities immediately to the west.

“Baton Rouge lost passenger rail service in 1969, two years before Amtrak began,” Gardner said. “This is a step toward correcting a gap in the Amtrak National Network that is more than 54 years old. Amtrak is working with states and others across the nation to have a route map that reflects where the population has grown and where people want to travel. In poll after poll, here in Louisiana and nationally, when given the option to take a train rather than drive, the public wants Amtrak and passenger trains as a travel choice.”

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