By Justin Franz
WASHINGTON — Amtrak is asking the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to force CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern to permit the operation of two daily passenger trains between New Orleans and Mobile, Ala., starting in 2022. On Tuesday, Amtrak stated in a petition to the STB that it had the legal authority to run passenger trains on the Gulf Coast but that the two freight railroads were dragging their feet.
Amtrak and the Southern Rail Commission have been working to restore passenger service east of New Orleans since 2015, a decade after it was cut due to Hurricane Katrina. Since then, Amtrak and SRC have secured $66 million to prepare the route for passenger service once again.
“Amtrak has a right to use these railroads’ tracks but, unfortunately, we have been unable to reach agreement after years of effort just to operate two short and quick round trip Amtrak trains,” said Dennis Newman, Amtrak Executive Vice President for Planning and Asset Development. “It is time for the STB to step in to protect Amtrak’s rights to use freight railroad tracks to support service across America. The SRC and other state or regional groups look to partner with Amtrak to deliver safe, reliable and relevant service and while we often reach agreements and co-invest with freight railroads without the STB’s involvement, we need the STB to bring this protracted process to a close.”
A spokesperson for NS told Railfan & Railroad that because the company was now in litigation with Amtrak over the matter it would not be commenting on it. In past statements, however, the freight railroad has said it “welcomes” the opportunity to work with Amtrak on resuming passenger service.
A CSX spokesperson was more direct, stating that Amtrak was going against the grain by going directly to the STB. “Amtrak elected to abandon the long-standing practice of completing an impact study when the introduction of new passenger service is proposed,” wrote Sheriee Bowman. “Now that this matter is before the Surface Transportation Board, CSX has no further comment.”
One of the freight railroads’ primary concerns about the resumption of passenger service is a lack of track capacity, but Amtrak notes that there’s plenty of room for its trains. “Under the planned schedule, each morning and each afternoon, an Amtrak train would depart from both Mobile and New Orleans, passing each other in Mississippi, where almost $45 million in improvements are proposed and funded,” the railroad wrote in a press release.
A number of groups came out in support of Amtrak. Rail Passengers Association President and CEO Jim Mathews said he was worried that the freight railroad’s efforts to prevent service on the Gulf Coast would have a negative impact elsewhere.
“If a freight railroad can draw out the process to restore passenger train service along a single corridor for longer than a decade, then there is little hope for passenger rail projects anywhere in the U.S. This lack of access will leave Americans permanently stuck using a second-class transportation system,” he said.