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CSX, NS and port push to keep Amtrak proceeding on track

CSX, Norfolk Southern, Alabama State Port Authority seek Aug. 31 deadline for supplemental evidence

Deliberations at the Surface Transportation Board over whether Amtrak should be allowed to reestablish Gulf Coast service between Mobile, Alabama, and New Orleans are still ongoing, and all the parties appear to be holding fast to their convictions over the best way to address Amtrak’s request.

On one side, Amtrak says the board should grant its request to run two daily trains between New Orleans and Mobile. Amtrak previously offered service along the Gulf Coast, but that service stopped in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Amtrak argues that the other side — CSX, Norfolk Southern and the Alabama State Port Authority — has been unsuccessful in proving that the additional service would harm freight rail service and service to and from the Port of Mobile.

“Amtrak’s additional analyses confirm that there will be no unreasonable impairment to freight transportation from the Gulf Coast service. CSX’s and NS’ arguments to the contrary are without merit, and their predictions (as well as the port’s) about the impact resulting from two additional round-trip Amtrak trains are greatly exaggerated,” attorneys for Amtrak said in a July 27 supplemental brief to the board.

On the other side, CSX (NASDAQ: CSX), NS (NYSE: NSC) and the Alabama State Port Authority contend that the service would have adverse impacts to freight and port operations if no additional investments are made to the supporting infrastructure. 

“While Amtrak has time and again urged the board to take a ‘wait and see’ approach by granting Amtrak immediate access without any supporting infrastructure, this the board should not do. It is the rail shippers, not Amtrak, who will bear the consequences from additional delays and disruptions in rail service,” attorneys for CSX and NS said in their July 27 filing.

STB had held a public hearing in February on the issue, and then it held an evidentiary hearing that started in April and ran for several weeks.

In June, the board determined that select Amtrak staff should review “highly confidential” market and operations information from CSX and NS so it could respond to questions raised from past hearings. The STB also ordered board-sponsored mediation for all parties.

The most recent filing to this ongoing proceeding was from last Thursday: Eastern U.S. railroads CSX and Norfolk Southern, along with the Alabama State Port Authority, are asking the STB to wrap up the collection of supplemental evidence on Aug. 31.

Amtrak: CSX and NS haven’t shown how passenger rail service would cause ‘unreasonable impairment’

In late July, the parties reiterated their positions on how they think STB should rule in this proceeding.

Attorneys for Amtrak said CSX and NS failed to prove that the restoration of Amtrak service on the Gulf Coast would cause “unreasonable impairment” on the freight railroads. Amtrak said the two railroads must pass that bar in order to prevent Amtrak’s request for service from moving forward, per federal mandate.

“Although Amtrak has provided additional evidence and analyses to fulfill the board’s request, Amtrak’s position remains that the evidentiary burden is on the host railroads to demonstrate unreasonable impairment to freight transportation,” attorneys for Amtrak said. “Because CSX and NS failed to meet this burden after an extensive evidentiary hearing, Amtrak is entitled to an order in its favor regardless of the evidence submitted here, which is in addition to the evidence Amtrak already provided at the hearing.”

Amtrak continued to say that the only evidence of impairment that CSX and NS submitted has been their rail traffic controller (RTC) model, which, even though Amtrak labeled the model as flawed, “confirms Amtrak’s position” that its new service would result in minimal impacts to freight train speeds, recrew rates and potential train delays.

Amtrak’s July 27 filing to STB included this chart. (Amtrak)

“Although Amtrak recognizes and appreciates that the board’s request for supplemental evidence is rooted in the board’s desire to protect the public interest, Amtrak respectfully submits that Congress determined what is in the public interest through its statutory enactments concerning passenger rail,” Amtrak said.

Amtrak added that it runs passenger trains “on far busier corridors,” such as in and out of Chicago, “without causing unreasonable impairment.” It also said it offered a capacity study showing there would be sufficient capacity to accommodate service between the two Southern cities. 

CSX and NS: Amtrak needs to acknowledge anticipated impairments

While CSX and NS conceded that it must prove to STB that Amtrak’s proposed service would impair freight rail service, they argued that Amtrak must also bear responsibility in showing how passenger rail service would affect the regional rail network.

“While Amtrak initiated this proceeding, its consistent strategy is to claim that only the freight railroads had the burden of proving anything and to criticize alleged imperfections in the railroads’ RTC model and evidence rather than submitting any competing RTC analysis. But that is not how the statute works,” attorneys for CSX and NS said in the July 27 supplemental filing.

They continued, “Amtrak is the party seeking a board order. As such, it has a burden of proof on all elements of the statute. … While CSXT and NSR have a burden of producing evidence as to impairment, Amtrak has the burden of persuading the board that the anticipated impairment to current and future freight service is reasonable.” 

Attorneys for CSX and NS said Amtrak “failed to rebut” the railroads’ evidence with its own evidence. That evidence includes forecasts on how freight rail and passenger rail service could be at odds with each other in the future under a do-nothing scenario. 

For instance, “the 2021 Gulf Coast RTC Model establishes that if the four passenger trains are added to the corridor today, in 20 years from now (2039) their presence will result in a systematic failure in CSXT and NSR’s ability to provide freight service based on a modest anticipated growth rate. RTC is able to dispatch the 2039 case only if freight trains are permitted to block grade crossings in the model for up to two and a half hours,” CSX and NS said.

Alabama State Port Authority: Port of Mobile’s terminal railway would be impacted by Amtrak service

Although attorneys for Alabama State Port Authority said that the port takes no position on whether CSX and NS have done enough to look at operational adjustments the railroads could do to accommodate Amtrak, per board comment about CSX’s and NS’ testimonies to STB, the port authority said its involvement in the proceeding was necessary given how Amtrak’s service could impact freight service in and out of the Port of Mobile. 

The port authority operates the terminal railway at the port, and as a first-mile/last-mile terminal operator, the railway’s operations are heavily dependent upon the service demands of its customers and connecting line-haul carriers and CSX’s discretion in allowing the terminal railway access to CSX’s main line trackage in the Mobile terminal, according to the July 27 filing from the port authority. 

“As such, the idea that TASD [the terminal railway at the Port of Mobile] has any true flexibility to adjust its operations to better accommodate Amtrak and avoid freight service impacts on its system are unfounded,” attorneys for the port authority said. 

“The sort of operating adjustments that Amtrak seems to think a carrier like TASD can undertake to avoid freight service disruption reveal just how badly out of touch Amtrak is when it comes to freight operations in terminal areas like Mobile and how little it understands about how Amtrak’s operations would impact interstate commerce,” the port authority continued. “Amtrak’s suggestion that TASD could adapt its operations to accommodate Amtrak ignores the fact that TASD does not, and cannot, control the service needs of its customers or its freight carrier partners, including CSXT, over whose lines TASD has absolutely no control.” 

Although the board wanted to hear from the port’s customers about the issue, the port said it has been unable to procure such evidence for several reasons, including “the highly politicized nature of the current dispute, pitting freight carriers against Amtrak and a woefully one-track-minded Department of Transportation; (b) concern over the prospect of having to make statements against interests regarding potential harm that would impair investment or raise other such problems for customers that are part of publicly traded companies; (c) uncertainty about how, exactly, port service will be impacted; and (d) the reality that, if the port were to convince customers that service would decline markedly (and that, if the board were to allow that to happen in favor of Amtrak), those same customers would likely shift to utilization of other Gulf Coast ports.” 

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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.