The Surface Transportation Board is allowing select Amtrak staff to review “highly confidential” market and operations information from CSX and Norfolk Southern so it can respond to questions raised during a proceeding on its request to restore Gulf Coast passenger rail service.
The STB is also ordering board-sponsored mediation for all parties.
Amtrak wants to run two round trips per day on CSX- and NS-owned tracks and infrastructure between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, and it wants STB to order CSX (NASDAQ: CSX) and NS (NYSE: NSC) to allow that service, according to a March 2021 request before STB. But CSX, NS and the Port of Mobile contend that the additional service would severely hamper freight rail movements without adequate study about how best to integrate Amtrak’s service with existing freight rail activity.
STB held multiday hearings on Amtrak’s Gulf Coast service request in April and May. The hearings garnered national attention because they put a spotlight on the issue of how to manage new and anticipated Amtrak service while also ensuring there is enough net capacity for freight rail. Amtrak operates on freight rail track in areas such as the Midwest and Northeast, and freight rail is required by law to prioritize passenger rail service in the use of the freight railroads’ track.
STB’s decision from Friday responds to Amtrak’s May 19 request to order CSX and NS to redesignate materials produced in connection with the 2020 and 2021 rail traffic controller studies from “highly confidential” to “confidential” so that Amtrak may be able to review those materials. The board granted Amtrak’s request so that Amtrak can respond to STB’s questions pertaining to train operations and rail traffic modeling.
“All parties should have the opportunity to fully respond to the evidentiary issues raised at the hearing,” said STB Chairman Marty Oberman in a release. “It is also the board’s intent to have a full and complete record in such an important matter that affects the public interest.”
STB also ordered Friday board-sponsored mediation, which will last for 30 days and won’t impact the timing of the proceeding. CSX and NS have supported mediation as an option but Amtrak has previously resisted the option, saying that it could lengthen the approval process even further.
In response to STB’s decision, Amtrak said it “appreciates the board’s continued efforts to instill transparency into this process and will work to meet the board’s new deadline. We will also work with the mediator the board appoints and continue our preparations for beginning this service along the Gulf Coast as soon as possible.”
Meanwhile, CSX said it “appreciates the STB’s decision to order board-sponsored mediation and looks forward to working with the appointed mediator and all parties towards a reasonable and amicable solution.”
Judy Adams, spokeswoman for the Alabama State Port Authority, said the port authority, its carriers, shippers and elected officials “have been trying to get Amtrak to the table since 2020 to affect an amicable solution that alleviates freight disruptions at the Port of Mobile. This is why the Port Authority appreciates the Board’s decision to order Board-sponsored mediation, and we look forward working with the Board’s appointed mediator in this proceeding.”