Updated: Aug. 6, 12:30 p.m. MST
By Justin Franz
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Surface Transportation Board has denied a motion to dismiss filed by CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern in an ongoing dispute between the freight railroads and Amtrak, which wants to resume passenger service along the Gulf Coast. The board’s decision means Amtrak could be one step closer to resuming service east of New Orleans for the first time since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
In March, Amtrak asked the STB to force CSX and NS to permit the operation of two daily passenger trains between New Orleans and Mobile, Ala., starting in 2022. A month later, the Class Is countered in a motion to dismiss that Amtrak was mischaracterizing the situation and that they were willing to negotiate. The freight railroads also stated that it was unnecessary to involve the STB. In its motion on Friday, the STB stated it would appoint an administrative law judge to resolve all disputes between the Amtrak and the Class Is. That judge will see evidence from both sides of the dispute this fall and then make a decision before the end of the year.
“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 officials said in a statement 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.”
The freight railroads had previously stated that Amtrak was trying to avoid completing an environmental review. But the STB determined that such a review was not needed.
“This STB decision is incredibly gratifying, and the Southern Rail Commission is pleased that the STB refused CSX’s and Norfolk Southern’s effort to dismiss Amtrak’s petition for access to operate passenger rail between New Orleans and Mobile,” said Knox Ross, Mississippi SRC Commissioner. “We are especially pleased that the STB found no need for an environmental review and set an aggressive hearing schedule to resolve this process within an expeditious timeframe that could meet Amtrak’s stated goal of starting passenger service in January 2022. Our communities are ready for the return daily rail service.”