Amtrak Trying to Pressure Host Railroads on Gulf Coast Service

Amtrak is trying to pressure two host railroads by announcing its plans to begin service in 2022 on the New Orleans-Mobile, Alabama, route.

In a statement, Amtrak said it continues to discuss with CSX and Norfolk Southern what infrastructure improvements are needed before the service can begin.

The service is expected to operate twice daily over a portion of the route once used by the Sunset Limited until August 2005.

Most funding for the service is already approved and includes state and federal money.

News reports indicate that Amtrak made the announcement even though a traffic study of the route is incomplete.

That study, which Amtrak is paying for, will use a computer simulation program to study how passengers operations might affect freight operations on the route.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the study should have taken just seven months but remains far from complete more than a year after it began.

He told Trains magazine that discussions between Amtrak and the host railroads have been going on for five years with no agreement near.

Amtrak’s announcement said the passenger carrier has “again asked the freight railroads where they believe there are more issues. We safely and successfully operate together elsewhere in the United States, with dependable freight service coexisting with reliable and relevant Amtrak service. That’s what the Gulf Coast deserves, too.”

The Southern Rail Commission has been pushing for a resumption of Amtrak service to the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Jacksonville, Florida, for several years.

CSX has said that the traffic study needs to be completed before it will have any further discussion about hosting the Amtrak service.

One sticking point is how Amtrak operations might affect rail traffic at the Port of Mobile.

In its own statement, CSX said it has “prioritized this Amtrak Gulf Coast study, treating each step as expeditiously as possible.”

The statement said CSX wants to ensure that the model is compliant with federal law.

“Not only are we committed to seeing its completion, but the STB [U.S. Surface Transportation Board] has a statutory obligation to determine if a new passenger service unreasonably interferes with freight operations. It is critical that this study and the full infrastructure impact assessment is completed.”

An analysis posted on the Trains website concludes that the CSX statement illustrates why the development of the route has taken so long and why Amtrak has lost patience with the process: The host railroads, particularly CSX, keep changing the parameters.

Trains said none of the three parties was willing to reveal any details of the capacity study, including preliminary findings, specific infrastructure change requests, or the timeline of negotiations.

Nonetheless, a 2017 Federal Railroad Administration report by the Gulf Coast Working Group set forth a list of $66 million of improvements that were needed to resume service between New Orleans and Mobile.

These included a house track at the Mobile station that would enable trains to get off the mainline; a signaled passing track around CSX’s Gentilly Yard in New Orleans; a second main track extension to accommodate long freight trains at Bay St. Louis, Mississppi; an automated junction in Gulfport, Mississippi; and yard capacity expansion at Pascagoula, Mississippi.

The states of Louisiana and Mississippi have set aside capital funds and Mississippi has agreed to help provide operating support.

But Alabama has not committed any funding and Gov. Kay Ivey has expressed opposition to the service, citing how it might disrupt freight access to the Port of Mobile.

The Mobile City County has agreed to spend more than $3 million over three years toward infrastructure improvements to get the Amtrak service started.

Amtrak has tentatively named the New Orleans-Mobile trains Gulf Coast Service and said they would serve four intermediate stations, all in Mississippi: Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi and Pascagoula.

The trains would use NS tracks for a short distance within New Orleans.

Magliari said that Amtrak safely and successfully coexists on other rail lines. “That’s what the Gulf Coast deserves, too,” he said.

A story posted on the Railway Age website speculated that the Port of Mobile may have leaked information to local news media over concerns that the new passenger service might hinder CSX freight service.

The Railway Age article said the Gulf Coast service may end up becoming a test case for how the STB will handles future intercity passenger rail proposals involving Amtrak, state entities and host freight railroads when the parties are unable to reach an agreement to allow new or expanded service.

For its part, an NS spokesman said his company’s position is similar to that of CSX.

“There is an established process for introducing new passenger rail service on freight rail lines recognized by both the freight and passenger railroad industries,” said Jeff DeGraff.

“It involves identifying, through a data-driven study, what infrastructure is necessary to ensure that the new passenger service is transparent to freight operations and doesn’t negatively impact the freight rail customers.”

DeGraff said NS welcomes the prospect that this process will be revived and completed in the proposed Mobile-New Orleans service.

Wiley Blankenship, chairman of the SRC, told Railway Age his agency remains “cautiously optimistic about Amtrak’s intention to start running trains again.”

He acknowledged that additional work needs to be done to address the concerns of the Port of Mobile before service can start.

SRC has worked for years to land public funding for Gulf Coast service including federal and state grants.

One federal grant will help pay for the operating costs of the service in its first three years.

Magliari told an Alabama news outlet that “instead of postponing the publicly sought and desired new Amtrak service for an indefinite period, we have notified the railroads that we believe we can start the service. There is money set aside for the capital improvements. There is money granted for the operating costs.”

Amtrak will provide more details about the proposed Gulf Coast service during a March 5 SRC meeting.

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