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CSX, Norfolk Southern want Amtrak’s Gulf Coast service proposal denied

Freight railroads and Port of Mobile argue passenger service without infrastructure improvements would cause major delays

CSX and Norfolk Southern want the Surface Transportation Board to deny Amtrak’s request to restore Gulf Coast service next year if Amtrak doesn’t agree to pay for infrastructure improvements that would ensure passenger service wouldn’t cause significant delays for freight rail.

CSX owns the tracks that Amtrak would use to go between New Orleans and Mobile in Alabama. Amtrak would also need access to NS’ track and infrastructure. By law, freight trains must give Amtrak priority when they share tracks.

Meanwhile, attorneys representing the Alabama State Port Authority want STB to allow the port authority to be an active party in the proceeding because Amtrak’s passenger service could affect freight rail operations at the Port of Mobile, according to filings last week to the board (see below).

In a 277-page filing submitted to STB last Wednesday, attorneys representing CSX (NASDAQ: CSX) and NS (NYSE: NSC) laid out several reasons why the board should either deny Amtrak’s application to restore Gulf Coast service or approve the application under the condition that Amtrak pays for capital improvements in the region.

The filing included a 2020 Gulf Coast rail traffic controller (RTC) report as evidence that shows how passenger rail service would affect freight rail operations in the region.

“Because Amtrak’s proposed service would unreasonably impair [CSX Transportation] and [Norfolk Southern Railway] freight service (as demonstrated by the 2021 Gulf Coast RTC Model), Amtrak cannot prevail … and its application should be denied,” attorneys representing CSX and NS said in last Wednesday’s filing.

“In the event the board does not dismiss or deny Amtrak’s request, at a minimum the board should impose conditions requiring Amtrak to fund, build and install the additional infrastructure required to prevent a near-catastrophic meltdown of freight operations — and to do so in a manner that does not unreasonably interfere with freight operations,” the filing said.

CSX and NS contend that their investments to improve infrastructure in the area would be sufficient to accommodate expected 2039 freight volumes, according to the RTC study. The study used 2019 as a base year.

However, the addition of Amtrak’s passenger service would change that, according to the railroads. Should passenger trains be dispatched without no new infrastructure, the result could be freight rails blocking grade crossings for as long as two and a half hours, the railroads said. 

“The 20.4% increase in freight delays reflects average degradation across all train types on both railroads. CSXT local trains would suffer far more service degradation, with delays increasing as much as 80% for some local trains. This would devastate first-mile, last-mile service to freight customers in the region,” the filing said.

The railroads also contend that the Gulf Coast Corridor is “unique” because of its physical characteristics, such as 13 movable bridges, including seven located on the proposed Amtrak route, that must be opened at unpredictable times and for extended periods, per federal regulation. The Gulf Coast Corridor is also primarily single track, with passing sidings that frequently intersect with highway-rail grade crossings, the railroads said. 

“While current freight-only operations can rely on dispatching maneuvers to attempt to minimize the length of time freight trains block those crossings, the addition of passenger traffic would foreclose that strategy,” the filing said.

The railroads also said the rail corridor has “unusually high freight demands” because New Orleans and Mobile are major terminals that host the operations of multiple railroads. 

“These terminals are highly congested — demand is high, track capacity is limited and train operations involving multiple carriers already require blocking the mainline and crossings, causing delays and affecting other modes of transportation,” the filing said. “The operation of the movable bridges further complicates the situation. Adding passenger service would exacerbate each of these problems, creating operational dilemmas and substantial delays for all nine of the freight railroads operating at one or both terminals.”

CSX and NS continued that they “are not opposed to Gulf Coast passenger service. But Amtrak must account for the actual impact that its proposed operations would have on freight customers, including adding the infrastructure necessary to prevent unreasonable interference with freight operations and paying the costs of its service,” the filing said. 

“Congress struck a balance between the interest of Amtrak in securing rights to operate over existing freight lines and the rights of the freight customers who rely on and ultimately fund that freight network,” the filing continued. “That balance provides that Amtrak may have access to freight lines to offer new passenger service — so long as it pays the full costs of that access and so long as its access does not unreasonably interfere with freight service.”

Alabama State Port Authority asks to be active party in proceeding

Meanwhile, the Alabama State Port Authority, including its rail carrier division, the Terminal Railway Alabama State Docks (TASD), is asking STB to include the port authority as a party in the proceeding, according to a Wednesday filing from an attorney representing the port authority.

By being part of the party, the port authority will be able to submit evidence to STB about how Amtrak’s passenger rail service would affect operations at the Port of Mobile. 

Amtrak had argued on Oct. 20 not to designate the port authority as a member of the party along with CSX and NS, according to the port authority’s filing last week. 

“Much has changed in and around the Mobile terminal since Amtrak last operated there,” the port authority said. “Barring the port from offering evidence of such adverse freight traffic impacts would likely constitute reversible agency error under the statute.” 

In response to these recent filings, Amtrak told FreightWaves, “Amtrak will review the joint filings of NS and CSX and respond accordingly to the STB. It would not be appropriate at this time to comment on the Port of Alabama’s actions, as its status as a party to the case is undetermined.”

In a separate filing also on Wednesday that described operations at the Port of Mobile, the port authority said, “The port is not categorically opposed to the commencement of Amtrak’s proposed Gulf Coast service. The port supports the concept behind the Gulf Coast service initiative, provided that the service is implemented responsibly, with due regard for rail freight operations along and around passenger the service corridor, and on the condition that Amtrak will provide appropriate freight service-protecting infrastructure funding, consistent with the collective efforts and consultation that had preceded Amtrak’s impatient, and potentially reckless, resort to the board’s procedures.”

It continued, “But because the current proposal — as best the port understands it — lacks any infrastructure to protect against adverse freight service impacts, Amtrak’s requested order threatens to introduce very serious service disruptions in and around the Mobile terminal. Accordingly, the port has no choice but to protect its interstate commerce interests by opposing the application, and it must do so strenuously, since the potential harm to the port could be calamitous.”

The filing describes the Port of Mobile as being the 12th-largest port seaport in the U.S. by volume of cargo handled, as well as being the second-largest steel port and third-largest coal port in the U.S. The port also has invested over $1.3 billion to expand and modernize port facilities, and it is targeting another $700 million in federal and state funds for additional improvements, including $360 million in federal funds to deepen and widen the Mobile ship channel by 2025 to more efficiently accommodate post-Panamax and large bulk ships, the filing 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.