Federal authorities’ decision to approve a merger between Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern is a major step forward in efforts to rebuild rail passenger service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, supporters said.
“It was a big, big day,” said John Spain, executive vice president of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and a longtime advocate for rail passenger transportation. “That was probably the last significant decision we’ve been waiting for.”
Not only did the U.S. Surface Transportation Board on Wednesday approve Canadian Pacific’s $31 billion acquisition of Kansas City Southern, but the decision specifically said the deal would allow Amtrak to begin passenger service on the KCS-owned Add line between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The board said compliance with agreements to allow Amtrak access to the Louisiana line and a Canadian Pacific-owned line between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario are conditions of the merger’s approval.
The new Canadian Pacific Kansas City rail line could open as soon as June 14.
While Spain expected the merger to be approved, he said he was particularly pleased with the language about local rail passenger services.
“Now we’re talking to partners about where we’re going from here,” he said.
Amtrak has already said Baton Rouge to New Orleans is one of the passenger services it plans to add. The next step is funding the service.
The biggest expense would be the estimated $108 million to replace the 1.8-mile wooden railroad bridge over the Bonnet Carre Spillway, where trains now crawl at 10 miles per hour. The cost of this work has increased over the years; A 2014 study put the price at $62.1 million.
The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development has requested federal grants to cover 80% of the cost of replacing the bridge and upgrading the level crossings. The state has also applied for a grant that would cover most of the rail service’s operating costs for its first six years of operation. The grant would cover 90% of operating costs for the first year of service and would decrease by 10% for each of the next five years. This is to help subsidize the cost of running the service while the customer base builds.
A decision on the scholarship award could be made by the end of the year, Spain said.
For more than a decade, officials in the region’s economic development have touted a rail passenger link as an important way to spur growth in the region.
The Baton Rouge Area Chamber and GNO Inc. issued a joint statement Thursday calling the decision to approve the merger “a strong and long-overdue commitment to connect Louisiana’s two largest population centers via passenger rail.”
The proposed service would include stops in Baton Rouge at the Electric Depot on Government Street and in the Bluebonnet-Essen-Perkins Medical District; at Gonzales and LaPlace; and at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport with a terminus at Union Passenger Terminal in New Orleans near Caesars Superdome.
No passenger train has operated between Baton Rouge and New Orleans since 1969, when Kansas City Southern’s Southern Belle service was discontinued. According to a 2019 poll of voters in Ascension, East Baton Rouge, Jefferson, Orleans, St. James and St. John parishes, there is public support for restarting the service.