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Amtrak takes fight for Mobile-New Orleans passenger service to STB

Groups say they support Amtrak service but are concerned about timing

An Amtrak train heads to its next destination. (Photo: Flickr/Jason V - CC BY 2.0)

Fifteen years ago, Amtrak discontinued passenger rail service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama. Part of the Sunset Limited service, the route had been offered three days a week, largely at night. 

The region had seen fits and starts to Gulf Coast service between the two cities. The first time Amtrak service occurred lasted from 1984 to January 1985, when the predecessor of the Southern Rail Commission (SRC) asked Amtrak to launch service in conjunction with the Louisiana World’s Fair Exposition. The second time occurred when SRC, with the financial support of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, asked for service to launch again in the summer of 1996. That service continued until the multistate funding dried up in 1997. 

Now Amtrak wants to reestablish service between those two southern cities — two round trips daily starting on or near Jan. 1 using track owned by CSX (NASDAQ: CSX). Federal and local grants directed toward the region make it an opportune moment to install passenger rail, insists Amtrak. 

“Amtrak has a legal right to use this route, which has sufficient capacity to host these trains, and up to $66 million in targeted improvements to support the new intercity passenger rail service along the line awaits action. These potential investments have been reviewed, approved and funded by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), Amtrak and others,” Amtrak said in a company statement on Tuesday.

But the Port of Mobile, CSX and Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) are saying not so fast. They’re concerned about the timeline, saying that all parties need to ensure that neither freight rail nor passenger rail service deteriorates as a result of Amtrak’s new offering. 

They pushed back on Amtrak’s proposed plan in February, asking Amtrak to complete an engineering study that started in January 2020 but hasn’t been finished. 

According to CSX, Amtrak’s trains would travel on 140 miles of single track owned by CSX. The route has seven drawbridges and 170 at-grade crossings. Per federal mandate, passenger rail service has priority over freight rail service when both share rail track.

Meanwhile, the Port of Mobile has a stake in this issue because all rail traffic supporting import and export activities at the port’s public terminals must cross the CSX line, according to Judith Adams, vice president of internal and external affairs for the Alabama State Port Authority (ASPA). The port authority’s Terminal Railway also travels the single-track CSX mainline to serve the container intermodal complex and McDuffie Terminal.

“We and many Alabama industry organizations and businesses have deep reservations about Amtrak initiating passenger rail,” Adams told FreightWaves in an email. “First, let me state up front, the ASPA is not against passenger rail. We are against Amtrak initiating new service in the CSX corridor that has not been studied nor had the sufficient rail infrastructure improvements.”

However, just this Tuesday, Amtrak set up a legal challenge and filed a petition with the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to require CSX and Norfolk Southern (NS) to permit Amtrak’s proposed service. 

“It is time for the STB to step in to protect Amtrak’s rights to use freight railroad tracks to support service across America. … We need the STB to bring this protracted process to a close,” said Dennis Newman, Amtrak executive vice president for planning and asset development.

CSX and NS declined to comment on Amtrak’s latest actions.

“Amtrak elected to abandon the long-standing practice of completing an impact study when the introduction of new passenger service is proposed. Now that this matter is before the Surface Transportation Board, CSX has no further comment,” CSX spokeswoman Cindy Schild said.

Economic ramifications

The push to reestablish passenger rail service between New Orleans and Mobile comes amid federal and state grants aimed at promoting passenger and freight rail in the region.

Indeed, at SRC’s March 5 meeting, David Handera, Amtrak’s vice president of stations and accessibility, said there is funding for the first three years of operations for service between New Orleans and Mobile. 

The SRC, a federally created entity, consists of commissioners from Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi who seek to promote area economic development through passenger and freight rail. According to Amtrak, the trains would operate on behalf of SRC.

In the filing, Amtrak asks for expedited consideration and an order allowing twice daily round trips starting on or about Jan. 1, 2022. These trains would operate for the Southern Rail Commission (SRC), a federally created entity representing Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.

According to Handera, the SRC has secured over $66 million in federal grants and local matching funds for improvements to railroad infrastructure that will benefit passenger and freight service along the route. The commission has awarded grants to Mobile as well as the Mississippi cities of Gulfport, Biloxi, Pascagoula and Bay St. Louis to improve rail platforms by repairing existing platforms or installing new ones. There are also plans to locate a rail station at the new Mobile airport at Brookley Field, pending final analysis.

“We have notified the freight railroads of our intention to begin service next year. We have again asked the freight railroads where they believe there are more issues,” Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari told FreightWaves. “We safely and successfully operate together elsewhere in the United States, with dependable freight service coexisting with reliable and relevant Amtrak service. That’s what the Gulf Coast deserves too.”

Amtrak contends that numerous studies have already been done to analyze the impact that passenger rail service would have on the region. The company asked the freight railroads in January what they consider to be the remaining issues that need to be addressed, Magliari said. 

There have been other places around the country where Amtrak successfully began passenger service without disrupting freight traffic, Magliari said. In these situations, the addition of Amtrak has helped to improve the railroads’ right-of-way, and it has benefited both Amtrak and the freight railroads by better positioning them to receive federal aid, according to Magliari.

Meanwhile, other stakeholders are concerned over potentially higher shipping costs associated with possible bottlenecks and traffic jams. They are also concerned that how the situation between Amtrak and the two Class I railroads resolves could set a precedent for other situations in which Amtrak might seek to introduce passenger rail service. Furthermore, both New Orleans and Mobile serve as import and export gateways, and there are multiple Class I and short line railroads that interchange at these locations.

These stakeholders say completing rail traffic control study among Amtrak, CSX and NS to look at the operational and economic ramifications of passenger rail would have addressed and potentially alleviated concerns. The study had started in January 2020 but it was not completed. They argued that this latest study was different from past studies because it would have looked at the impacts of daily, daytime passenger rail service on existing freight rail operations. 

That study and the supplemental engineering analysis would have defined port impacts, needed infrastructure to accommodate both freight and passenger rail, and the cost of that infrastructure, prior to degrading freight mobility in and out of one of the nation’s largest ports, Adams said. 

At stake for the port is over $1.3 billion invested in public terminals and the federal channel, an additional $786 million in federal and state investment to service volume growth and approximately $25.4 billion in the port’s economic value through its cargo and vessel activities, she said.  

“Rail delays at the port cause upstream delays on railroads that service shippers across the state and Gulf Coast region,” Adams said. “Business and industry across the state and region are concerned as to how new passenger rail service — four daylight transits daily — will impact their supply chains, competitiveness and costs structures. The port is primarily daylight operations.”

A railcar with tags. (Photo: Joanna Marsh/FreightWaves)

The Port of Mobile sees several issues that need to be addressed before passenger rail service begins, according to Adams. 

Since passenger rail travels at higher speeds than freight rail, there is no place for freight rail trains to pull off the line to allow passenger rail trains to pass. Freight trains could be held at Mobile to avoid timing conflicts, but that might result in significant congestion at the port, according to Adams. It could also hold up CSX southbound traffic out of Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama, and Atlanta, creating congestion upstream, she said.

Moreover, Amtrak’s service could stymie CSX’s efforts to run longer trains in the region. The route between Mobile and New Orleans doesn’t have the sidings needed to run 10,000- to 15,000-foot unit trains, according to Adams. There are also four coal trains with Alabama coal and two container intermodal trains, as well as two ASPA Terminal Railway pulls for CSX and six ASPA Terminal Railway pulls for all of the remaining eight railroads accessing the port, she said.

Other stakeholders had also wanted the study to be completed. A group of Alabama shippers sent a letter dated Feb. 26 asking Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and other federal and state officials to withhold funding until Amtrak completes the study. The study’s objective was to conduct a freight impact and infrastructure cost analysis on the Port of Mobile as well as identify necessary improvements and true public costs to establishing passenger rail in the region.

The Alabama District Export Council “and the listed business interests ask Alabama’s congressional delegation, the state of Alabama and the city and county of Mobile to send a strong message to Amtrak by withholding public subsidy for this proposed project,” the letter said. “We further ask for your support in asking Amtrak to live up to its promise of working with the other parties to complete the study work necessary to demonstrate the full impact of passenger rail on Alabama’s seaport and the state’s diversified commercial interests.”

The letter’s signees included shippers groups representing farming and agricultural interests, forestry and paper products interests, and mining and manufacturing groups. 

What’s next

The Port of Mobile, CSX and NS may have wanted Amtrak to complete the engineering study, but now Amtrak’s filing to STB takes any resolution of this situation outside of the region.

“There is an established process for introducing new passenger rail service on freight rail lines recognized by both the freight and passenger railroad industries. It involves identifying, through a data-driven study, what infrastructure is necessary to ensure that the new passenger service is transparent to freight operations and doesn’t negatively impact the freight rail customers,” NS said in a statement issued before Amtrak’s filing on Tuesday. “The public entities sponsoring the service finance the infrastructure construction prior to passenger service being introduced. It is a well-instituted process, one that history has shown to work. Norfolk Southern welcomes the prospect that this process will be revived and completed in the proposed Mobile-New Orleans service.”

The wider Gulf Coast region has lent its support for the new service, praising on Tuesday Amtrak’s decision to take the case before STB. The region has been eyeing passenger rail service since Hurricane Katrina washed away much of Amtrak’s Sunset Limited service between New Orleans and Florida in 2005.

“We lost passenger rail service along the gulf coast 15 years ago when Hurricane Katrina damaged the rails and while those tracks have been repaired, passenger rail did not restart. Congress directed the FRA to lead an analysis to determine everything it would take to return service, and the SRC worked with the FRA to deliver that report in 2017 which identified $66 million in infrastructure needs. We have that funding now secured and we are ready to move forward,” said Mississippi SRC Commissioner Knox Ross. “Our local communities are frustrated by all the years of studying and waiting, and we are hoping this public and transparent process will resolve all outstanding issues so that service can begin soon.”

“For Mississippi, restoring passenger rail service is a symbol of the huge strides our state has made to recover from one of the most devastating storms on record,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss. “Reconnecting the Gulf Coast to our nation’s passenger rail network will increase access to jobs, boost tourism, provide a safe alternative to highway travel and improve quality of life across the region. Our goal is to have successful freight and passenger rail service on the Gulf Coast, and I look forward to the Surface Transportation Board considering this matter.”

Meanwhile, Adams said an outside body looking into this situation may be what it needs.

“The Alabama State Port Authority welcomes an independent and thorough Surface Transportation Board investigation into the actual data and facts,” Adams said.

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Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.