By Justin Franz
WASHINGTON — CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern are asking the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to dismiss a petition by Amtrak asking the federal regulator to force the freight railroads to a deal on restoring passenger service on the Gulf Coast. 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, but Amtrak officials say the freight railroads are dragging their feet.
Amtrak wants to operate two daily passenger trains between New Orleans and Mobile, Ala., starting next year but has been unable to come to an agreement with NS and CSX, which owns the track.
“Amtrak has a right to use these railroads’ tracks but, unfortunately, we have been unable to reach an 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.”
But the freight railroads say Amtrak is mischaracterizing the situation and state in their motion to dismiss that they have not said no to the service and are willing to negotiate. They counter that Amtrak is jumping the gun by involving the STB.
“Congress created an avenue for Amtrak to seek relief from the Board if a railroad ‘does not agree to provide, or allow Amtrak to provide, for the operation of additional trains over a rail line of the carrier,’” the railroads wrote. “But the prerequisite for action is a railroad’s refusal to allow additional service. Here, CSX and NS have not said no to Amtrak’s request.”
The freight railroads continue that Amtrak has not worked with them on finishing a rail traffic control study to enable the service nor has it completed an environmental study on how the service might impact the region. NS and CSX also note that while the new service will go through three states — Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama — it is lacking financial support from one of them, Alabama. On April 1, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey wrote that she believed Amtrak should complete a study of how two daily passenger trains might impact freight operations. In the letter, she noted that transportation hubs like the Port of Mobile depend on reliable freight transportation over the route Amtrak wants to run on.
In a statement to Railfan & Railroad, Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari wrote, “The matter is before the proper authority, the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, where we fully anticipate the STB’s process will be both transparent and data-driven. We will respond to all filings through that docket.”
Interestingly, while CSX is trying to get the petition dismissed by the STB that contradicts what it has stated in the past. In 2017, CSX officials stated in a report to Congress that “ultimately” the STB would need to be involved before service could resume.