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Federal regulators to review Amtrak’s request to restore Gulf Coast service

Amtrak, CSX and Norfolk Southern to present findings to STB throughout the fall

Amtrak is seeking to restore passenger service between Mobile and New Orleans. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

The Surface Transportation Board has determined that it will review Amtrak’s request to restore Gulf Coast service, dismissing calls by Class I railroads CSX and Norfolk Southern to deny the request because of concerns about how the passenger rail service might affect freight rail operations.

Amtrak wants to run passenger trains between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama. But the service would run on lines owned by CSX (NASDAQ: CSX) and NS (NYSE: NSC), and both railroads, along with the Port of Mobile and a number of Alabama shippers, had wanted a study completed beforehand to assess how the passenger rail service would affect freight rail and port operations.

The STB’s decision on Friday institutes a proceeding for evaluating Amtrak’s request, as well as sets a procedural schedule. The decision also appoints an administrative law judge to resolve initially all discovery disputes.

According to the procedural schedule, CSX, NS and Amtrak will be filing material to the agency by certain dates in October, November and December. By Dec. 16, the last date given, there will be a proposal on the hearing format.

“Amtrak thanks the Surface Transportation Board for its decision to dismiss CSX and NS’ attempt to block Gulf Coast passenger rail service. This upholds Amtrak’s right to petition the Board for rail access and sets a schedule for a transparent process that will produce an outcome by the end of this year,” Amtrak said Friday. 

“In the meantime, Amtrak is working with the Southern Rail Commission to take steps to begin to operate Gulf Coast Service as soon as possible next year,” Amtrak said.

In response to the decision, CSX said, “CSX is evaluating the decision, but will plan to move forward with the schedule established by the STB.”

Meanwhile, the Alabama State Port Authority, which has expressed a vested interest in Amtrak’s request, said that while the port authority was “encouraged” that STB called for a study that models Amtrak’s potential effects on freight transportation, the port authority was “extremely disappointed in the board’s indifference to the need of environmental regulation” since the proposed route would likely need new infrastructure in environmentally-sensitive areas. 

“We are a significant stakeholder in this process and hope the regulators consider the port’s existing and future freight utilization,” port authority spokesperson Judy Adams said.

Amtrak previously ran long-distance passenger service three days a week east of New Orleans, including the stretch between New Orleans and Mobile. But Hurricane Katrina in 2005 caused significant damage to the rail infrastructure, ending the service. 

CSX and NS had wanted Amtrak to complete an operational impacts study that the three had started in January 2020. However, the study wasn’t completed because Amtrak elected in January 2021 not to continue its involvement, contending that several past studies had already looked at the operational impacts and that public funding was at stake.

STB denied CSX’s and NS’ wish to deny Amtrak’s request for a proceeding because the proceeding “is ripe for adjudication,” plus Amtrak’s application won’t need environmental and historic reports as required by some applications seeking federal approval. 

“For several years, Amtrak has sought to restore service in some manner on the Gulf Coast, and it is unclear how the parties will reach an agreement regarding service on the Gulf Coast without Board consideration of Amtrak’s application,” STB said.

The agency also said that Amtrak doesn’t need to finish the January 2020 study. But the board will accept into the record any studies related to how freight rail operations would be impacted by Gulf Coast service. 

By including more studies into the proceeding’s record, as well as information from all the parties on what infrastructure might be needed to support Amtrak service, STB will be able to consider the concerns of Alabama groups and officials about how Amtrak service would affect operations at the port.

“The Board recognizes the importance of a study that models — in the context of the line’s present and future traffic volumes and engineering design and conditions — the specific service that Amtrak proposes in its application,” STB said. “The Board therefore expects that evidence on the service’s potential effects on freight transportation, such as an RTC [rail traffic controller] study or other study or studies, will be part of the record in this proceeding, as well as any competing studies or other competing evidence, together with all the inputs, assumptions, and methodologies underlying any study results, including all relevant traffic projections (filed under seal, if necessary).”

STB continued, “As part of this effort, the Board also expects the parties will detail any infrastructure that they consider necessary for Amtrak to operate additional trains by its proposed start date as well as infrastructure needed in the future to factor in anticipated growth in traffic. The information described above will allow the Board to assess whether the proposed additional train service can proceed without impairing unreasonably freight transportation.

“The Board recognizes the concerns expressed by Alabama state leadership and some railroad and port entities, among others, regarding the potential impacts of passenger service on freight service in the New Orleans-Mobile corridor and the need for a study to assess those impacts and identify mitigation measures. However, as explained above, this proceeding, including evidence submitted by the parties, will provide a forum to assess precisely the matter of concern to Alabama state officials and others.”

Friday’s decision follows a request by the U.S. Department of Justice to take up the issue. Also, while Alabama officials have raised concerns about the restoration of Gulf Coast service, officials in Mississippi and Louisiana have been vocal in their support of Amtrak.

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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.