Posts Tagged ‘Mobile Alabama’

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.

Alabama Senator Wants Traffic Study Completed

April 1, 2021

An Alabama senator wants Amtrak to complete a traffic study before it moves ahead on instituting new service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) outlined his views in letters sent to Amtrak, the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, and host railroads CSX and Norfolk Southern.

Shelby, the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, said a never-completed traffic study needs to be finished in order to alleviate his concerns that the Amtrak service could negatively affect the region’s growth and commerce. 

“I believe that initiating new Gulf Coast passenger-rail service should be guided by the best available data and information,” Shelby wrote.

“As one of the largest growing seaports in the United States, the Port of Mobile serves as an essential economic driver for the state of Alabama and region. As such, prior to establishing passenger-rail service in Mobile, I believe it is essential that a comprehensive analysis be completed that definitively determines the impact such service would have on existing freight rail service and the Port of Mobile. It is my hope that all parties involved can come to an amicable solution to ensure the study is completed.”

Officials at the Port of Mobile have for some time expressed concern that Amtrak operations would adversely affect CSX rail service to the port.

Shelby was apparently prompted to act after Amtrak asked the STB to compel CSX and NS to explain why they could not host the new service.

Amtrak wants to launch the service in 2022 and has said it has a legal right to use the route.

CSX and NS have balked, saying that a study of how Amtrak would affect freight operations of the host railroads needs to be completed before they will discuss what infrastructure improvements need to be made to accommodate passenger service.

Supporters of the service, including the Southern Rail Commission, have $66 million in funding set aside for those infrastructure projects.

 “It is my hope that all parties involved can come to an amicable solution to ensure the study is completed,” Shelby wrote.

Amtrak said it withdrew from the study because it was getting bogged down by changes to its parameters demanded by the host railroads.

Amtrak Trying to Pressure Host Railroads on Gulf Coast Service

March 2, 2021

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.

Funding Quest Continues in Alabama

February 14, 2020

The fight for local funding in Alabama to help pay for a proposed new Amtrak service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, is far from over.

Proponents of the service are now asking the Mobile County Commission to also commit to providing funding.

Two of the three commissioners told local reporters this week that they think it is too early for the commission to decide on providing funding.

Commissioners Merceria Ludgood and Connie Hudson said there has been no “formal” presentation or request of the commission although a third commissioner, Jerry Carl, supports the service and said he expects the county will potentially spending up to $3 million over a three-year period to support the construction of a new train station or platform.

“Our original conversation was for the county to come up with $1 million a year for three years,” Carl said. “That would build a train station and would be the maximum we could put into it. But we are waiting on (passenger rail advocates) to figure out their numbers. We’ll have our legal team talking to the city to make sure they OK with it. Nothing is guaranteed on (the project) until we see final numbers.”

Wiley Blankenship, an Alabama member of the Southern Rail Commission said his group will be approaching the commission sooner rather than later.

The Commission has been leading the efforts to return Amtrak service to the Gulf Coast.

The region has been without rail passenger service since the Sunset Limited was suspended in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

“We don’t want to ask (for county assistance) until they are fully educated (on the issue) and that we give them all the information so they can evaluate it and so they can make the best decision for the taxpayers,” Blankenship said. “We’re planning on doing that over the next few weeks.”

Last week the Mobile City County approved a resolution committing the city to spending $3 million over three years to help pay for the service, which is projected to get started in 2023.

However, that financial commitment is contingent on other governmental or private entities agreeing to spend up to $2.2 million on capital improvements for the route.

That might involve having to get state funding for capital improvements, which might be a uncertain proposition given that Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey last year declined to support state funding for the service.

The capital improvement needs are expected to be spelled out in a study now being undertaken of how Amtrak service would affect host railroads CSX and Norfolk Southern.

That study is expected to be finished this summer.

“Depending on what comes out of the study, I think the state will step in and it will be determined what role the state and county will play in terms of infrastructure,” Hudson said.

The Ivey administration said last week it is waiting to see where the county commission stands on the project.

Capital improvements for the New Orleans-Mobile route have already been projected at $5.786 million of which $2.89 million will come from a $33 million grant from the Federal Railroad Administration, and $671,000 from Amtrak.

The states of Louisiana and Mississippi along with the online Mississippi cities of Pascagoula, Biloxi, Gulfport and Bay St. Louis have agreed to providing funding for the route.

Mobile City Council Approved Funding for Amtrak

February 8, 2020

The Mobile City Council this week approved a funding package to help underwrite the operating expenses of a proposed Mobile-New Orleans Amtrak service.

The council voted in favor of spending $3 million over a three-year period for the service, whose inauguration is projected to be in 2023.

The vote was critical because terms of a federal grant to get the service started require the states served to providing matching funds.

Although cities in and the states of Louisiana and Mississippi have agreed to provide matching funding, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has thus far refused to do so.

Mobile is the first Alabama government entity to agree to provide funding.

The Gulf Coast region has been without intercity rail passenger service since Amtrak’s tri-week Sunset Limited was suspended east of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

Restoration of Amtrak service to the Gulf Coast region has been a top priority of the Southern Rail Commission., which worked to obtain the federal grant.

Mobile must still conduct a study of how the proposed service might affect CSX freight operations at the Port of Mobile.

Potential interference with freight trains has been cited by Ivey and others for their reluctance to support state funding of the service.

Mobile Council to Vote on Amtrak Funding on Feb. 4

February 3, 2020

The Mobile City County last week delayed yet again a vote on a proposed to spend $3 million in city funds to help pay for Amtrak service between Mobile and New Orleans.

However, Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said the day after the latest delay that he expected the council to “get to yes” when it votes on Feb. 4 on the proposal.

Five of the seven Mobile council members must vote in favor of a resolution on the funding in order for it to pass.

Stimpson has said he wants assurances that the service would not affect CSX freight traffic to the Port of Mobile.

“We’re looking for a confirmation, a pathway forward so that we don’t get surprised because really, as steward of the taxpayer dollars, it’s imperative that we do our homework to make sure that we get this piece right,” he said.

The Southern Rail Commission is leading the effort to get Amtrak service reinstated to the Gulf Coast region.

A federal grant will pay some of the costs of the service with the states of Mississippi and Louisiana already having agreed to provide matching funds.

However, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey had thus far refused to commit funding from Alabama, which has meant that getting funding from Mobile might be crucial for the project to move ahead.

The Gulf Coast region has been without intercity rail passenger since Amtrak’s Sunset Limited was suspended in August 2005 in the wake of damage to its route east of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.

Supporters of the Mobile-New Orleans route, which would operate twice daily, have argued that it will bring tourist dollars and tax revenue.

Alabama State Port Authority CEO Jimmy Lyons has raised concerns about freight trains sharing the same tracks as passenger trains.

Stimpson said an expected study on the impact on freight traffic would “take a lot of the ambiguity” out of the debate even though that study will not be completed before the city council votes this week.

“I’m 100 percent sure we’ll have to make a decision without the benefit of that study,” Stimpson said. “It’s gonna be based on us getting more comfortable with where we are.”

Stimpson, however, rejected concerns raised by some opponents that the service would result in an unacceptably high level of taxpayer subsidy of service that is not expected to generate enough in ticket revenue to pay for its operating costs.

Stimpson said there is “no real way to know” what the long-term cost to the city would be.

“I think it’s probably close enough to take that risk,” he said.

He said he believes the benefits of having rail passenger service are more than the increased tax dollars the city would see from tourist traffic.

It would also be a “sales point” for the city because “not every city can say that,” he said. “And not every city has Amtrak, and a downtown airport like we hope to have one day.”

In advance of the vote in Mobile some Mississippi cities that would be stops for the trains are leaning the Mobile City Council to approve funding.

Officials in Biloxi, Pascagoula, and Bay St. Louis are trying Mobile to get onboard in funding the service.

A combination of city, county, and state governments in Mississippi and Louisiana have made financial commitments for the service.

“We think it’s vitally important Mobile votes for it,” said Biloxi spokesman Vincent Creel. “It creates that synergy from New Orleans to Mobile. It would create a unity for the cities along the Gulf Coast.”

Opposition Continues to Funding of New Amtrak Route

January 25, 2020

Opposition continues to surround a proposal in Mobile, Alabama, for city funding of a proposed new Amtrak route linking the city with New Orleans.

The Mobile City Council is expected to vote on Jan. 28 on a resolution to endorse committing financial support toward the restoration of a route that last saw passenger service in August 2005 when the Sunset Limited was suspended in the wake damage to the route by Hurricane Katrina.

A three-member council finance committee declined to recommend voting in favor of the funding with some members saying that ticket revenue would not cover the costs of operating the trains.

Five council members must vote to approve the funding resolution in order for it to pass.

Mobile has proposed spending up to $3 million over a three-year period to help underwrite the Mobile-New Orleans service, which is expected to be two roundtrips a day.

State and local governments in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana are facing a Feb. 5 deadline to approve matching funds for a Federal Railroad Administration grant that was announced earlier.

The states of Louisiana and Mississippi have approved their share of the funding and Amtrak has agreed to provide $6 million for capital projects needed to get the route started.

But Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey balked last year at approving that state’s share of the funding.

Ivey and some connected with the Port of Mobile have expressed reservations about the passenger service for fear that it would interfere with CSX freight service to the port.

The Rail Passengers Association said that Mobile’s $3 million commitment is crucial to bringing the service to fruition.

RPA said if Mobile votes against the funding, it would endanger the project.

Mobile Delays Action on Funding Amtrak Route

January 2, 2020

The city county in Mobile, Alabama, has delayed until Jan. 28 a vote on funding for Amtrak service.

The council had been set to vote on contributing city funding to a new New Orleans to Mobile route on Dec. 31, but delayed the action after learning that the deadline to commit the funding has been extended.

The deadline had been Jan. 6 but has been extended to Feb. 5. Most of the funding for the service is expected to come from a federal grant, but the states of Louisiana and Mississippi have also agreed to provide matching funds.

Alabama, though, has balked at providing funding. State funding would be independent of any funding provided by Mobile.

Mobile is considering providing between $2 million and $3 million to help pay for the operating expenses of the route for its first three years.

Wiley Blankenship, an Alabama commissioner to the Southern Rail Commission, told council members in an email that an additional $1.9 million has been added to the federal Restoration and Enhancement Grant program to bring the total amount available to $26.3 million.

He said the grant funds are competitive and Gulf Coast rail service is not the only regional-based Amtrak service seeking funding.

Blankenship said at least two services on the East Coast have expressed interest and meet qualifications for the program.

Some Alabama public officials have expressed concerns about how implementation of Amtrak service would affect rail freight operations at the Port of Mobile.

A study of the effect of Amtrak operations on CSX freight service on the route is expected to be completed in about six months.

Blankenship said the SRC may approach the state of Alabama about providing funding for capital improvements to the tracks to be used by Amtrak.

He also said an Amtrak official is expected to attend a Mobile City Council meeting in January to answer questions.

Mobile Resolution To Come With Contingencies

December 24, 2019

The resolution that the city council of Mobile, Alabama, is expected to consider on Dec. 31 contains a clause that would revoke the city’s financial support of a proposed expansion of Amtrak service along the Gulf Coast if certain issues are to arise.

The city will consider committing $3 million toward the operating cost of the service, which is envisioned to begin in 2023 between New Orleans and Mobile.

The action comes as local and state governments along the proposed route face a Jan. 6 deadline to commit matching funds to a federal grant awarded earlier this year to get the service started.

The states of Mississippi and Louisiana have agreed to contribute their share of the funding but Alabama has balked.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has raised concerns that the Amtrak route would adversely affect rail operations at the Port of Mobile.

Mobile city council members will vote on a letter of intent, but one council member has asked what happens after the first three years of the city’s commitment to fund operations of the route.

Other questions that have arisen include the cost of building a station in Mobile and how infrastructure improvements from the Mississippi border to Mobile will be handled.

Most of the operating costs of the route are expected to be paid for by a federal Restoration and Enhancement grant.

The concerns of Gov. Ivey have also been echoed by Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson and State Port Authority CEO Jimmy Lyons.

Wiley Blankenship, president and CEO of the Coastal Alabama Partnership and a member of the Southern Rail Commission  said the location of the Mobile station at the Brookley Aeroplex, instead of downtown would harm commercial activity at the port.

“The Port is a priority for me above passenger rail, ”he said. “If I felt that operating the train at Brookley would jeopardize the Port, I would not be standing here today. I would ask the governor to remove me from the office, and that I cannot serve.”

Mobile City County to Vote on Funding Amtrak Route

December 21, 2019

The city council of Mobile, Alabama, is expected to vote on Dec. 31 on a proposal to help fund the restoration of Amtrak service to the city from New Orleans.

The city funding would be between $2 million and $3 million for three years.

The federal government has awarded a grant to help pay for the route’s operating expenses. The states of Louisiana and Mississippi have agreed to chip in funding but Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has thus far refused to approve that state’s estimated $2.2 million funding share.

If Mobile approves funding for the route, the money would not be paid until 2023 when the service is expected to begin.

City Council President Levon Manzie said that it is “untenable” that Mobile could not be included on the route. “We need to be a part of this service,” he said.

Ivey and Alabama State Port Authority CEO Jimmy Lyons have opposed the service on the grounds that it could potentially interfere with traffic at the Port of Mobile.