SOUTH MISSISSIPPI (WLOX) - Huge crowds turned out Thursday morning to welcome Amtrak and try to encourage the return of passenger rail service to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The Amtrak Inspection Train began its journey Thursday morning in New Orleans with federal, state and South Mississippi leaders onboard. Marching bands, children waving signs and a second-line dance celebration; all were a part of the enthusiastic turnout.
The welcome party was already underway in Bay St. Louis when Amtrak arrived at the historic depot.
"Welcome to Bay St. Louis. Thank y'all for coming out. It's a beautiful, beautiful day," said Mayor Les Fillingame, who then led a champagne toast that included the governor and Sen. Roger Wicker.
"I have never felt so welcomed to a town in my life," said Sara Feinberg. The director of the Federal Railroad Administration was amazed at the turnout.
"There is so much enthusiasm and so much momentum. The Federal Railroad Administration is so proud to be a part of it. We want to be a good partner to y'all, to all of the communities along the Gulf Coast. We're so thrilled to make this happen, this is so exciting," said Feinberg.
The enthusiasm continued as the train rolled eastward. Those onboard enjoyed a view not seen by train passengers since Hurricane Katrina.
"A transportation area we don't have. So it would be very good. Absolutely. It's amazing to look at a town from this side, when you're not used to looking at it," said Pass Christian Mayor Chipper McDermott.
The Gulfport stop found another supportive crowd and a proud mayor who sees plenty of positives with Amtrak's potential return.
"It hits all the numbers. Business, pleasure, leisure. You name it. So, it's just one more piece of the puzzle for us," said Mayor Billy Hewes.
Minutes later and a few miles eastward along the tracks, another huge celebration was waiting.
"Welcome to Biloxi," said Mayor Andrew "FoFo" Gilich, who led the welcome party in Biloxi: A second line celebration, band, and cheerleaders.
"It's called tourism. An opportunity for you to travel along the rails of this great nation once again," said Governor Phil Bryant, who fired up the crowd.
"They have a plan. I've seen that plan. Amtrak has seen that plan and we support that plan," said Thomas Carper, who sits on the board of directors for Amtrak.
Biloxi is in a strong position to benefit from Amtrak service, primarily because of the city's downtown transit center.
"We can't overstress the significance of this transit center. It's a multi million dollar facility. It's multi model. It's the only one between New Orleans and Jacksonville," Biloxi Spokesman Vincent Creel said.
The travel and tourism industries can capitalize on the opportunity to attract more visitors to our shores.
"It's a great opportunity for travelers to see the coast, instead of just landing and taking a cab. Train travel is essential and I'm really excited about it on the Gulf Coast," said Tourism Director Renee Areng.
Biloxi has the largest inventory of hotel rooms on the coast. City officials believe that, coupled with MGM Park, home of the Biloxi Shuckers, would bring baseball fans and others attending concerts and festivals to downtown Biloxi.
Then there's the casino industry. Frank Dart and his wife, from just outside of Jacksonville, say they would love to hop on a train and come to the coast.
"If this train does come to fruition, we would come five or six times a year and spend a lot of time in the casino," said Dart.
"It's a winner for the entire Mississippi Gulf Coast. It'll boost tourism and bring a lot of commuters to businesses," said Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran.
Ocean Springs and Pascagoula also turned out to show support for the passenger train. Those involved in the decision making were impressed.
"Look at these people. They want this train. They understand it's about economic development, creating jobs, bringing tourism to the Gulf Coast," said John Spain, who serves as vice chairman for the Southern Rail Commission.
Thursday's trip was more than just public relations. The transportation committee members, who've been studying the return of passenger rail, were also inspecting the railroad tracks, to determine what improvements might be needed.
Amtrak is considering two different routes. There is no timeline on when a decision would be made.