Amtrak wants the Surface Transportation Board to expedite its review of Amtrak’s plans to reestablish passenger rail service in the U.S. Gulf Coast. The service was discontinued in the mid-2000s. But CSX and Norfolk Southern are saying, not so fast. The two freight rail carriers still want Amtrak to complete a comprehensive survey of how the passenger service would impact regional freight shipping operations.
Amtrak seeks to start operating passenger rail service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, by Jan. 1, saying the service is “an important piece of a national vision to make intercity passenger rail service a more vital part of the nation’s transportation system.”
“The residents of the Gulf Coast have already waited many years to have their passenger rail service restored such that this vision can become a reality,” Amtrak said in a July 6 filing to the board. It is asking STB to institute a proceeding and use the procedural schedule that Amtrak proposed on March 16.
According to Amtrak’s filing, Amtrak has been working with CSX to allow Amtrak to “(1) conduct a survey for an interim layover track in Mobile; (2) undertake repairs to stations in Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi, Pascagoula, and Mobile; and (3) begin the process of qualifying Amtrak crews to operate along the Gulf Coast corridor.”
Amtrak can already access safety and operational information on lines owned by NS in New Orleans because Amtrak already operates on those lines, according to Amtrak’s filing.
But CSX and NS contend that Amtrak still needs to complete a study on how passenger service would impact freight rail service, especially on CSX’s network in Alabama. They say the study would not only determine what additional infrastructure is needed, but would also help the board assess the environmental impacts of Amtrak’s application.
“To dispel any confusion, a capacity study continues to be as necessary as it always has been. It is needed to determine what infrastructure is required to support adding passenger trains to the Gulf Coast corridor without unreasonably degrading freight service,” attorneys for CSX and NS said in a Friday filing.
They continued, “Numerous freight stakeholders in Alabama have voiced their opposition to the ‘leap before you look’ request by Amtrak, where passenger trains are forced onto the track without the benefit of the longstanding practice of a cooperative Amtrak-freight rail capacity study that has been requested by CSXT [CSX Transportation] and NS. CSXT and NS are not opposed to Amtrak’s desire to bring new passenger service to the Gulf Coast, but it should be done the right way.”
The two railroads concluded that the board should dismiss Amtrak’s request to expedite a review until Amtrak, CSX and NS complete an operations modeling study.
Amtrak’s request to reestablish Gulf Coast service comes as the Biden administration has been keen to invest in passenger rail, according to its proposed budget for the U.S. Department of Transportation, as well as DOT’s comments about Amtrak’s efforts to restart Gulf Coast service.
“Encouraging the Surface Transportation Board to protect Amtrak’s rights to use freight railroad tracks and prioritize passenger trains will provide more sustainable and equitable transportation options across America,” Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn said last Friday in response to Biden’s executive order targeting the maritime and rail industries. “We appreciate the president’s continued support for Amtrak’s plans to bring passenger rail service to more of America.”
Separately, Amtrak announced last week plans to invest billions of dollars to replace aging rolling stock.