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CSX and NS: Amtrak didn’t track Gulf Coast service impact

CSX and NS: Amtrak didn’t track Gulf Coast service impact

An Amtrak train. (Photo: Shutterstock)

The Surface Transportation Board should not be swayed by the political winds that appear to support Amtrak’s ambitions when it comes to restoring passenger rail service between Mobile, Alabama, and New Orleans, attorneys representing CSX and Norfolk Southern said recently.

“This board is not a political rubber stamp. It is an independent arbiter required to neutrally apply the statute in a way that balances the interests of all stakeholders. And here Congress has made clear that Amtrak is not allowed to add passenger trains that will ‘unreasonably impair’ freight transportation,” attorneys representing CSX (NASDAQ: CSX) and Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) said in a Dec. 23 rebuttal totaling 194 pages.

The Dec. 23 filing reiterates many of the arguments CSX and NS have already laid out on why STB should carefully consider how it responds to Amtrak’s request regarding Gulf Coast service.

STB has said it will hold a public hearing on this proceeding on Feb. 15, with a potential second-day hearing occurring on Feb. 16.

In its procedural rebuttal on why STB should refrain from granting Amtrak’s request to add four daily passenger trains on the Gulf Coast line, CSX and NS said Amtrak’s analysis of how passenger rail service would affect area freight rail service is lacking because of inadequate data. 

CSX, NS and the Port of Mobile in Alabama want Amtrak to complete a rail traffic controller (RTC) report that all the parties were engaged in and that CSX and NS say would have scrutinized Amtrak’s impact on freight rail service more closely. 

But instead of finishing the study, Amtrak instead opted to seek STB’s approval last March, saying that numerous studies have already been conducted.

“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 March.

Attorneys representing CSX and NS disagreed with that assessment, saying that Amtrak seeks to take advantage of the political winds supporting it.

“There is no explanation for Amtrak’s abrupt decisions to abandon cooperative evaluation of the impact of its proposed new service and to walk away from its initial recognition that infrastructure investments would be necessary to support that service — except perhaps a hope that shifting political winds will lead the board to ignore negative impacts on freight shippers so it can give Amtrak a ‘win,’” CSX and NS said in the late December filing.

CSX and NS contend that the evidence that Amtrak provided showing that passenger service would result in minimal impacts to freight rail ignores the following: 

• It does not account for movable bridges, delays caused by movable bridges or bridge tender hi-rail movements.

• It fails to account for the differences between yard, local and through trains, instead “developing a ‘model train’ and pretending that all the freight trains are the same.”

• It does not track the impact on grade crossing delays.

• It does not attempt to model future volumes and infrastructure needs.

“Indeed, Amtrak’s proprietary ‘model’ appears to be a glorified string model,” CSX and NS said. “Board precedent does not accept string modeling as a substitute for RTC modeling in rate cases for hypothetical stand-alone railroads — where all that is at stake is the rate to be charged. And the board cannot reasonably accept such a model here, where Amtrak’s proposal would have real impacts on freight consumers and where a reliable and accepted methodology shows that unsupported passenger trains will wreak havoc on the quality of freight service.”

CSX and NS also responded to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Dec. 14 filing requesting to be an adviser to the proceeding, contending that DOT misunderstands CSX and NS’ argument. The question is not whether to permit passenger rail service but whether to permit passenger rail service with no supporting infrastructure, CSX and NS said.

“This case is not about whether Amtrak may institute a new passenger service on the Gulf Coast Corridor. Rather, it is about whether Amtrak will be allowed to implement that service with no supporting infrastructure investments, in a way that would cause serious, demonstrable harm to the many stakeholders who rely on Gulf Coast freight service,” CSX and NS said. 

“CSXT and NSR [CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Railway] have long stated and reiterated that they are willing to work with Amtrak to institute its new service, so long as the necessary supporting infrastructure is funded. The investments that CSXT and NSR have proposed are reasonable, conservative and backed by an RTC model that Amtrak’s consultants have failed to undermine. 

“The board should deny Amtrak’s application and encourage it to reengage in a cooperative process to invest in the infrastructure necessary to support its desired service. Alternatively, the board should order that any Amtrak access be conditioned on its agreement to ensure timely construction of the infrastructure projects that the 2021 Gulf Coast RTC model shows are necessary to support passenger service.”

Pan Am acquisition has ‘important implications’ for New England passenger service: DOT/FRA

In a separate proceeding before STB that addresses CSX’s plan to acquire New England short line Pan Am Railways, the DOT said the board should be mindful about how the acquisition would impact passenger rail service in the region.

DOT and FRA recognize that “the [Pan Am rail] lines at issue here, and the affected Northeast region, are home to an extensive set of Amtrak and commuter rail lines. This proceeding therefore has important implications for current and future passenger rail service,” said senior trial attorney Christopher S. Perry on behalf of DOT’s general counsel. His comments pertained to a Dec. 21 filing on DOT’s review of CSX’s safety integration plan for the proposed acquisition.

“Thus, FRA continues to urge the board to carefully consider the comments submitted by Amtrak and other passenger rail stakeholders, and requests that the board impose appropriate conditions to ensure that the applicants are held to their commitments regarding the continuation and enhancement of passenger rail,” Perry said.

The board will conduct a public hearing on this proposed acquisition on Jan. 13, with a potential second-day hearing occurring on Jan. 14.

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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.