Posts Tagged ‘Gulf Coast rail service’

CSX, NS Seek Dismissal of Amtrak STB Case Over Gulf Coast Service

April 30, 2021

CSX and Norfolk Southern have asked the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to dismiss Amtrak’s petition asking regulators to force the two Class 1 railroads to allow operation of new Gulf Coast passenger service next year.

The host railroads said Amtrak’s complaint is not “ripe” because they have not refused Amtrak’s proposed service.

In a filing, the two railroads said they want Amtrak to live up to the commitments it made to complete a joint rail traffic controller modeling study to determine the infrastructure that will be required to support the service Amtrak wants to implement.

Amtrak has proposed operating two daily roundtrips between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

The filing by NS and CSX also contends that Amtrak has not submitted an environmental and historic report with its STB petition, and that Congress did not give Amtrak any cause of action that could support its demand for an “interim order” allowing it to enter other railroads’ lines to perform preparations for new service before the STB decides whether the new service will be allowed.

Furthermore, the host railroads argued that Amtrak lacks important state support to ensure success of the proposed service.

At the center of the dispute is Amtrak’s withdrawing from a traffic study the host railroads contend must be completed before they will discuss what infrastructure improvements are needed to accommodate passenger service.

For its part, Amtrak contends the railroads hindered completion of the study by changing its parameters as it was being conducted.

The passenger carrier at the time it filed its request with the STB in February said it was seeking to force NS and CSX to demonstrate why they cannot host the proposed service.

In statement released after the host railroads asked the STB to dismiss the case, Amtrak said the matter is being considered by regulators and the intercity passenger carrier “fully anticipate the STB’s process will be both transparent and data driven. We will respond to all filings through that docket.”

At the time that Amtrak went to the STB, an Amtrak spokesman indicated that discussions about instituting the service have been ongoing for five years with no sign of a conclusion in sight.

Amtrak contends that federal law gives it a right of access to the host railroads for the proposed Mobile service.

In the past week, the STB case has also drawn the attention of various Alabama political officials.

Gov. Kay Ivey called for completion of the traffic study, which she said it critical for protecting the economic interests of the Port of Mobile.

Ivey said she wants the STB to order Amtrak to complete the traffic study before considering Amtrak’s application.

The governor’s statement to the STB also said, “Alabama has withheld funding for new Gulf Coast passenger service because of our concern that any economic benefit from new passenger rail service will be outweighed by the potential harm to freight rail service based on the current infrastructure. I am particularly concerned about the impact to the Port of Mobile. . .”

Mobile Port Authority CEO John C. Driscoll also has asked the STB to order Amtrak to complete the traffic study.

Port Officials have long expressed concern that passenger operations will adversely affect CSX freight service to the port.

Driscoll said in his statement that the port authority “does not oppose passenger rail into the City of Mobile, but we do have deep concerns regarding Amtrak’s impact on servicing current freight rail as well as servicing future freight capacity demand in the CSX corridor.”

Until August 2005 Amtrak served Mobile with its tri-weekly Sunset Limited, which operated along the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Jacksonville, Florida.

Operation of Nos. 1 and 2 east of New Orleans was suspended after the route was damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Fighting Continues at STB over Gulf Service

April 28, 2021

Amtrak has asked the U.S. Surface Transportation board to dismiss the objections of CSX and Norfolk Southern to a case the passenger carrier filed in March seeking to force them to allow new service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

The two Class 1 railroads and Amtrak have long been at odds over what improvements are needed to allow the Mobile service to begin.

In its latest filing Amtrak refered to federal law pertaining to use of railroad facilities and providing service to Amtrak.

The law in question, the Amtrak filing said, allows it to operate additional trains over a rail line of the carrier.

The law allows Amtrak to seek an STB order requiring the carrier to provide or allow for the operation of the requested trains.

CSX and NS contend that Amtrak must complete a traffic study begun last year of how the Mobile service would affect their operations.

That study has yet to be completed and Amtrak wants both host railroad to be forced to explain why they cannot host the new Amtrak service.

Amtrak is also seeking to force the host railroads to explain what infrastructure improvements are needed to enable the new service to begin.

The line in question was used by Amtrak until August 2005 when it was damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

At the time, Amtrak suspended operates of its Sunset Limited east of New Orleans.

In a related development U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) has asked the STB to allow Amtrak to expand service along the Gulf Coast.

Wicker’s letter was sent in response to Amtrak’s petition to restore the service along the coast.
“Implementing twice-daily service between New Orleans and Mobile would provide a huge economic lift to Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi, and Pascagoula, and other cities along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. It would serve as the culmination of Mississippi’s efforts to recover from Hurricane Katrina,” Wicker wrote.

In a contrary position, the Port of New Orleans and New Orleans Public Belt Railroad Commission have asked the STB to complete the traffic study of how Mobile service would affect host railroads CSX and NS.

In their letter, the two entities asked the STB to order Amtrak to complete the traffic control study with supplemental engineering and cost report.

The agencies said they are not opposed to the new Amtrak service but said the study “is needed to adequately understand the impact the passenger-rail service will have on current and future freight service through the region.”

Gulf Coast Corridor Station Funding Being Offered

February 2, 2021

Funding is available through the Southern Rail Commission for rail passenger stations in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama along the Gulf Coast High Speed Rail corridor.

SRC said it has access to $724,385 in federal funds earmarked to develop the Gulf Coast corridor.

Eligible projects include station and station area planning, design and construction, and multimodal station connections, including upgrades for disabled riders.

Applicant cities must describe the needs and improvements of their rail station.

An application also must describe how the proposed work would ensure safe access and better connectivity to and from the station, improve convenience for riders, develop new facilities and help spur the economic opportunity of station redevelopment.

The application deadline is 5 p.m. CST, March 5. A  pre-proposal conference call is scheduled for 2 p.m. CST, on Feb. 5. Feb. 5. To join the call, dial 425.436.6200 and use the passcode 100535.

More information is available at southernrailcommission.org.

U.S. DOT Awards Grant for Gulf Coast Service

August 31, 2019

The U.S. Department of Transportation on Friday announced that it will award a $4.36 million grant to the Southern Rail Commission to help restore intercity rail service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

The service, expected to be two round trips per day, will use tracks formerly served by Amtrak’s Sunset Limited until August 2005 when it was suspended in the wake of damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.

The grant is being made through the federal Restoration and Enhancement program and is intended to help pay operating expenses for the first year of service.

The states of Louisiana and Mississippi have committed $1.4 million toward the service while another $33 million federal grant award to get the service started was awarded through the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements program for infrastructure and capital improvements.

However, Alabama officials have yet to agree to provide any funding for the service.

SRC officials said they hope Alabama state officials will support the passenger rail restoration by providing matching funds during the next grant cycle.

“I look forward to working with my fellow commissioners and Alabama state leadership to provide the necessary support to leverage additional federal operating funds to make Gulf Coast Rail a reality,” said Wiley Blankenship, an SRC member from Alabama.

Another stumbling block that must be overcome is reaching an agreement with host railroad CSX on the infrastructure work that is needed before passenger trains can resume using the route.

Likewise, an operating agreement with CSX also needs to be negotiated.

Alabama Gov. Silent on Rail Funding Match

June 18, 2018

The efforts to resume Amtrak service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, are awaiting word from Gov. Kay Ivey as to whether she supports those efforts.

The project faces a deadline on Thursday for the state to make a funding pledge of $5.35 million as Alabama’s share of the funding.

Resuming intercity rail service along the Gulf Coast east of New Orleans has been a priority of the Southern Rail Commission for the past several years.

Eventually, the Commission wants to see the service extended to Orlando, Florida.

Amtrak’s Sunset Limited served the route until August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina caused several damage to the route’s infrastructure, including the existing Amtrak stations.

Federal funds are expected to pay for most the service restoration, but states along the route must match that funding.

The governors of Louisiana and Mississippi have agreed to providing funding, Ivey has refused to meet with the Commission or to say if she supports or opposes the state match.

If Alabama declines to providing funding, the train will operate no further east than Pascagoula, Mississippi.

Alabama Gov. Lobbied on Gulf Coast Restoration Funding

April 17, 2018

Southern rail passenger advocates are trying to prod Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey into supporting a proposal to seek federal grants to be used to restore Amtrak service east of New Orleans that was halted in 2005 due to damage from Hurricane Katrina.

Alabama’s match for the federal funds would be $3.5 million, although that could rise to $8.5 million if service is to be restored at Atmore, Alabama, which was one of two cities in the state served by the Sunset Limited before it was discontinued along the Gulf Coast in the wake of Katrina.

The Southern Rail Commission has said Alabama’s share would be spread over four years.

There is a sense of urgency to win the governor’s approval because deadlines for the two federal grant programs are in May and June.

“There are grants available right now that Alabama can take advantage of,” said Wiley Blankenship, CEO of the Coastal Alabama Partnership who serves as the representative of Mobile, Alabama, on the SRC, a 21-member group formed in 1982 to advocate for passenger rail service and pursue funding opportunities for expanded rail passenger service in the South.

Another proposal is to reinstate Amtrak service between Mobile and Birmingham, Alabama, which operated between 1989 and 1995.

That service, known as the Gulf Breeze, was a section of the Crescent, which operates between New York and New Orleans.

The Ivey administration is expected to receive updates on the grant proposals in the coming weeks.

At one time the Sunset Limited ran between Los Angeles and Miami. However, its route had been trimmed to Orlando, Florida, by 2005.

Greg White, SRC vice chairman and a resident of Andalusia, Alabama, expressed optimism that the Commission can bring Ivey’s office “up-to-speed” on the need to move forward.

“We’ve been in transition from one governor to the next and we are finding ourselves in the middle now of a primary campaign,” said White, adding that SRC officials have already met with two cabinet members.

The SRC has noted that the recent federal omnibus budget approved by Congress contains money for two grant programs, one of which was created to restore lost passenger rail service.

The language of the program is such that the SRC believes the Gulf Coast route is the only one eligible for the full $35.5 million appropriation.

Another program has $20 million to support operational expenses for new passenger rail service.

One sticking point in restoring Gulf Coast service is the cost of rebuilding infrastructure destroyed or damaged by Katrina.

CSX, which owns most of the route the train would use, has said rebuilding the line for passenger train use would cost $2.3 billion.

The Gulf Coast Working Group, created by Congress in 2015 to study restoring the service, has put the cost at $117.7 million.

The SRC has been critical of the CSX estimate, calling its demands unreasonable. CSX said much of the cost would involve rehabilitating 17 drawbridges between New Orleans and Orlando.

Without that, the railroad said, it would be a near impossibility to run passenger trains on the line under present conditions that fulfill on-time expectations.

Mobile Moving Ahead With Station Plans

April 17, 2018

Although it not a certainty that Amtrak service east of New Orleans will be restored, officials in Mobile, Alabama, are pressing ahead with plans to build a new train station.

The city received a $139,500 federal grant in 2016 to be used toward establishing the station.

Officials have discussed putting it downtown near Cooper Riverside Park, the Arthur R. Outlaw Mobile Convention Center and the GulfQuest maritime museum.

The city recently issues a request for qualifications for consultants to provide planning and architectural design work for the station. Applications are due by April 20.

Not everyone in Mobile is on board with the idea of restoring Amtrak service that was lost in August 2005 after Hurricane Katrina damaged the route of the Sunset Limited east of New Orleans.

Jimmy Lyons, head of the Alabama State Port Authority doubts that getting Amtrak back will benefit the city that much.

Instead, he argues that it will encourage more people to leave Mobile to visit New Orleans and Mississippi casinos rather than drawing visitors from elsewhere to Mobile.

“People aren’t going to get on a train and ride to Mobile when you have the museums, zoos and aquariums in New Orleans,” he said. “The residents of New Orleans, when they come to Alabama, they go to the beach. Taking the train isn’t a good option of going to the beach. We would lose business here. I don’t see it as a real win for Mobile.”

Lyons is also worried that a passenger train would interfere with CSX freight service to the port of Mobile.

“We are highly dependent on that CSX rail line that runs through the port and underneath the Convention Center,” Lyons said. “We run, at a minimum, seven-eight trains a day over that line. On heavy days, when we have a lot of coal traffic, we could be up to 12-15 times.”

Lyons’ point of view is at odds with that of the Southern Rail Commission, which is pressing states on the route of the train to provide funding to match federal grant money that is available in the current federal budget for restoration of intercity passenger rail service where it has been lost.

Budget Bill Gives Boost to Efforts to Restore Amtrak Service Along the

March 28, 2018

Gulf Coast proponents of restoring Amtrak service are looking toward a provision of the recently approved federal budget as a cause for optimism.

The $1.3 trillion omnibus bill contains $20 million for a grant program aimed at initiating, restoring or enhancing passenger rail service.

An aide to Florida Senator Bill Nelson said the program is competitive but was created with the Gulf Coast service in mind.

The Southern Rail Commission said the budget bill contained $592 million for the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements grant program, which has $35.5 million to restore lost passenger service.

The Gulf Coast Rail Service Working Group, a partnership between the Federal Railroad Administration, Southern Rail Commission and 28 cities, regional planning councils and state departments of transportation last July sent a report to Congress that urges creation of daily Amtrak service between New Orleans and Orlando.

The route was served by Amtrak’s Sunset Limited until that service was suspended following extensive damage to the route by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The report estimated the cost of service restoration at $115 million, but track owner CSX contends it would be $2 billion.

The working group has expressed doubt about the CSX figure but said it could not validate it without knowing the methodology behind the estimate.

Since the report was completed, CSX has offered for sale the track between Jacksonville and Pensacola, Florida, that Amtrak once used.

Knox Ross, vice chairman of the Southern Rail Commission, is optimistic that if CSX sells the track that could boost efforts to restore passenger service to the Florida panhandle.

“(State and federal regulators) could make the passenger train a condition of sale,” Ross said. “That they have to maintain the line to at least current standard, and that they have to allow the (passenger) train.”

The Southern Rail Commission is also seeking twice-daily rail service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

“We’ve got a short-term opportunity to get something done,” he said.

One stumbling block to service restoration could be the lack of positive train control on the line between Pensacola to Orlando.

CSX Route Sale Could Affect Service Restoration

March 19, 2018

CSX has offered for sale a portion of the route once used in Florida by the Sunset Limited.

Passenger train advocates are concerned that this might affect their efforts to reduce rail passenger service between New Orleans and Jacksonville, Florida.

The track in question is a 300-mile segment between Jacksonville and Pensacola.

The Southern Rail Commission is lobbying government regulators to consider the inclusion of passenger rail as an aspect of the sale.

If they are able to do that, it could overcome one hurdle to reinstating Amtrak service that was suspended in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina damaged the route.

CSX has opposed resisted allowing Amtrak to use the route.

“There will be regulatory processes that govern the sale of this line,” said Knox Ross, the vice chairman SRC and former mayor of Pelahatchie, Mississippi. “We want to make sure that the regulators understand we want to bring the train back and that that be considered as part of any sale.”

Southern Groups Continue to Seek New Service

February 5, 2018

Work to launch Amtrak service between Atlanta and Fort Worth, Texas, is continuing, but passenger train advocates said it is taking a back seat to the long-stalled efforts to restore service to the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Jacksonville, Florida.

 “The Gulf Coast is first in line — it gets priority,” said Transportation for American Chairman and former Meridian (Mississippi) Mayor John Robert Smith. “ . . . There’s a finite amount of money that you can compete for.”

Smith said it will take about two years to get service restored between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

That also assumes that federal matching funds will be available to help pay for the $23 million cost.

“It’s not like it will take two years to do the work — we’re talking about negotiations,” Smith said. “You could run trains there in six months.”

Smith expects the service between Meridian and Marshall, Texas, route will follow after the Gulf Coast restoration. Amtrak’s Texas Eagle uses the tracks between Marshall and Fort Worth.

The Texas-based I-20 Corridor Council is working with state and federal officials and Amtrak to restore passenger rail service from Meridian to Marshall with the idea of ultimately connecting Atlanta and Dallas.

Intercity rail passenger service along that route ended more than 50 years ago.

“The concept is to have all three states pushing for this passenger rail service,” said Richard Anderson, chairman of the I-20 Corridor Council. “It would benefit all three states — it would benefit the entire south.”

Smith believes the Millennial Generation will ultimately be responsible for the resurgence of passenger trains, even in the South.

“They aren’t as married to the automobile as my generation was,” Smith said, adding that Millennials and Baby Boomers are the two largest generations in American history. “Those two huge generations drive marketing advertising and many of the choices we make in this country.”