Posts Tagged ‘New Orleans-Mobile rail service’

Amtrak Rejects Gulf Coast Case Mediation

March 30, 2022

Amtrak has opposed a request by CSX and Norfolk Southern that the Gulf Coast case be settled through mediation.

The passenger carrier called mediation yet another delaying tactic by the host railroads.

CSX and NS recently asked the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to order mediation in the case, which Amtrak brought in March 2021 in an effort to force the host railroads to allow new intercity rail passenger service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

Amtrak asked the STB to delay any action on mediation until after the Board conducts an evidentiary hearing in early April.

In a filing dated March 28, Amtrak said it agreed with CSX and NS that “an amicable resolution of this matter may be possible,” but the move to mediation is “yet another attempt to further delay a process that has already been delayed far too long.

“At the very least the motion is premature in as much as it presumes that the building of infrastructure is necessary for Amtrak to resume the Gulf Coast service, and therefore necessary for the parties to negotiate over.”

The evidentiary hearing has been set for April 4-5.

NS, CSX Seek Mediation in Gulf Coast Case

March 28, 2022

The Gulf Coast Amtrak service dispute may be headed to mediation.

CSX and Norfolk Southern want the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to appoint a mediator to help them resolve their dispute with Amtrak over the latter’s efforts to start passenger service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

Amtrak more than a year ago brought a case before the STB seeking an order forcing the would-be host railroads to allow the service to begin.

The parties have been at odds over the level of infrastructure improvements that are needed to the route to accommodate passenger service.

Regulators held public hearings in February and are set to conduct an evidentiary hearing in early April.

If the STB appoints a mediator, all parties would have to accept whatever resolution of the dispute the mediator enables the parties to reach.

STB Sets Agenda for Gulf Coast Hearings

March 15, 2022

Federal regulators have issued an order to the parties involved in the Gulf Coast passenger case to be prepared to address certain specific issues during public hearings that begin on April 4.

U.S. Surface Transportation  Board Chairman Martin J. Oberman laid out those issues in a letter sent to the direct parties in the case, Amtrak, CSX, Norfolk Southern, and the Alabama State Port Authority.

Amtrak is seeking an STB order to CSX and Norfolk Southern allowing it to use their track for proposed new passenger service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

The port authority was allowed to intervene in the case after it contended that Amtrak operations could hinder freight service to the Port of Mobile.

In part, the STB wants the parties to address the operation of drawbridges on the mostly CSX route, which has not hosted Amtrak since August 2005.

Operation of bridges has become an issue because CSX contends that a traffic modeling study it conducted shows the bridges must be opened upon demand and that would affect rail traffic on the route.

The STB has also asked the parties to address how Amtrak’s existing operating agreements with CSX and NS apply to the Gulf Coast dispute, what steps have been taken pursuant to those agreements, and any additional steps under those agreements that are considered for implementation by the parties.

Although Amtrak submitted as evidence those operating agreements, they are not part of the record in the case that is open to public view.

Regulators also have asked the parties to address whether they can “prescribe reasonable terms and compensation” if they determine that Amtrak operations would impose unreasonable burdens on freight operations.

A similar question the Board asked is whether it can order a host railroad to allow Amtrak operations subject to the construction of additional infrastructure as determined by regulators and can regulators determine which party must pay for such work.

The STB order can be found at https://dcms-external.s3.amazonaws.com/DCMS_External_PROD/1647268205256/51157.pdf

STB Sets New Dates for Gulf Coast Case Hearings

March 4, 2022

The evidentiary hearing for the Amtrak Gulf Coast case has been reset for April 4-5.

The U.S. Surface Transportation Board had been scheduled to conduct the hearings March 9-10 but moved them back nearly a month at the request of CSX, one of the direct parties in the case.

Amtrak is seeking an STB order forcing CSX and Norfolk Southern to host proposed double-daily new service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

The STB said the evidentiary hearings should take no more than two days but it also has reserved April 6 and 8 if additional time is needed.

The Board conducted two days of public hearings in the case in February, hearing 10 hours of testimony from 60 witnesses.

Continuance Sought in Gulf Coast Case

February 24, 2022

CSX and Amtrak have found something upon which they can agree in the Gulf Coast service case.

Both want the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to delay the next round of hearings in the case until April.

The freight carrier filed a motion with the Board on Wednesday asking regulators to delay the evidentiary hearings from March 9 to April 5 with the next two days set aside if needed.

The motion said that Amtrak, the Port of Mobile and Norfolk Southern do not oppose the request.

All four are direct parties to a case brought by Amtrak in March 2021 asking the STB to order CSX and NS to host proposed double-daily passenger service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

The STB held two days of public hearings earlier this month at which 60 witnesses provided 10 hours of testimony.

The motion said the parties did not want the evidentiary hearings delayed beyond the first full week of April.

A report on the website of Railway Age said that unnamed industry observers believe the request for a continuance of the hearings may indicate that CSX and Amtrak might be willing to resume negotiations over the service in an effort to come to an agreement without the involvement of federal regulators.

A major sticking point in the Mobile service proposal has been the level of capital investment that is needed on the route.

CSX and NS have demanded what Amtrak and its allies view as exorbitant and unneeded infrastructure improvements to the largely single-track line.

Amtrak has said it is willing to fund some infrastructure work, but not as much as what the host railroads are demanding.

CSX, STB Members Spar Over Capacity Projects

February 17, 2022

The public hearings in the Gulf Coast passenger case continued on Wednesday with some members of the U.S. Surface Transportation Board critical of host railroad CSX’s objections to the service.

STB Chairman Martin Oberman pointed to evidence that CSX uses its mainline at Gentilly Yard near New Orleans to assemble trains, which has resulted in multiple hours of delay.

Oberman wondered why CSX has spent more than $30 billion on paying stock dividends and buying back shares of its stock, but hasn’t invested in expanding Gentilly Yard or resolving infrastructure issues on the route that Amtrak wants to use between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

“You’ve spent $6 billion less on capital than stock buybacks over the past 11 years,” Oberman said.

Those comments came during an exchange with CSX CEO James Foote, who insisted that his railroad is not opposed to Amtrak service along the Gulf Coast but wants Amtrak to pay for capacity upgrades.

Various reports have put those capacity improvements at $440 million.

Foote argued that without those improvements CSX freight operations would suffer.

CSX said the route between New Orleans and Mobile, over which Amtrak wants to operate double-daily service, is single track and has limited passing siding capacity.

Oberman at one point suggested that the lack of capital investment by CSX on the route was causing delays to CSX service even without Amtrak operating there.

In response, Foote said the COVID-19 pandemic had upended CSX operations for the past two years and that the Class 1 railroad spends $2 billion annually on capital spending for infrastructure improvements of its system.

Yet some STB members seemed unconvinced by that, saying the capacity issues on the route existed long before the pandemic.

“I’m a little disappointed by the response,” said STB Vice Chairman Robert E. Primus. “I want direct answers, and I don’t think we’ve got them.”

During his appearance, Foote sought to frame the issue as one in which an Amtrak victory in the case would negatively affect the national freight network.

Oberman said the Board will consider whether CSX is seeking to force the expenditure of public funding on overdue infrastructure improvements that that railroad has failed to make.

STB member Karen Hedlund said CSX needs to present information next month during an evidentiary hearing about “the additional benefits to the fluidity of your system from the improvements you are requesting that be made on behalf of Amtrak.”

Oberman suggested CSX could make operational changes to address the capacity issues, including running shorter freight trains that would fit into the existing sidings.

The Wednesday hearings also featured former NS and Amtrak CEO Charles “Wick” Moorman, who said he wasn’t taking sides in the dispute but said that during his time at NS and Amtrak the two were able to work out mutually beneficially plans that enabled the launch of new Amtrak service in Virginia and North Carolina.

Noting that one of the sticking points in the case is how Amtrak service might adversely affect the Port of Mobile, Moorman said NS faced the same issue regarding rail service at the Port of Norfolk when Amtrak wanted to begin service to Norfolk, Virginia.

“We had similar concerns at NS, but we worked with Amtrak to resolve them,” he said. 

Moorman expressed confidence that the STB would be able to mediate a compromise between the various parties on the infrastructure matters.

He also said that during his time at Amtrak that CSX claimed $2.4 billion in infrastructure improvements were needed to make the Gulf Coast route suitable for passenger service between New Orleans and Jacksonville, Florida. “I say this with all due respect to my CSX friends — that was laughable,” Moorman said.

Although Moorman said he didn’t know how much needs to be spent on infrastructure work on the New Orleans-Mobile route, he said there is a “process and tools” to decide what is necessary.

Amtrak President Stephen Gardner took issue with CSX’s assertions of how much infrastructure is needed to the New Orleans-Mobile route.

Amtrak’s position is that it could implement the service without any capacity improvements and that that would not result in “unreasonable impairment” to either CSX or NS freight service.

He cited studies concluding that in that scenario the presence of Amtrak trains would cause average freight train speeds to decrease by just seven-tenths of a mile per hour. 

Gardner said it was not Amtrak’s responsibility to pay for what he termed, “the gold-platting of freight railroad lines in order for them to live up to their legal obligations to Amtrak.”

The latter comment was a reference to an Amtrak assertion in the case that the law creating Amtrak in the early 1970s gives the passenger carrier a right of access to any rail line in the country.

Federal Railroad Administration head Amit Bose generally sided with Amtrak on that point during his testimony but also reminded regulators that more was at stake than service between New Orleans and Mobile.

“The board’s decision here will have impacts that reach far beyond the Gulf Coast,” Bose said. “The outcome of this case will have impacts on the future of passenger rail all across the country.” 

Echoing that point were various speakers from communities outside the Gulf Coast who hope to see new Amtrak service come to their communities.

The perception of Bose and those witnesses is that if regulators side with CSX on the issue of Amtrak’s obligation to pay for infrastructure work that will effectively limit rail passenger service expansion in other areas.

The STB will hold another public hearing on March 9 at which time the direct parties to the case – Amtrak, NS, CSX and the Port of Mobile – will present evidence to support their positions.

For more on the STB hearings visit https://railfan.com/csx-amtrak-butt-heads-on-gulf-coast-service-before-stb/ or https://www.trains.com/trn/news-reviews/news-wire/moorman-csx-and-amtrak-weigh-in-on-second-day-of-stb-hearing-analysis/

45 Testify at STB Hearing in Gulf Coast Case

February 16, 2022

The U.S. Surface Transportation board heard 45 witnesses on Tuesday during eight hours of testimony on the first day of public hearings on the Gulf Coast case.

The hearings are to continue today and are being conducted online. They can be watched on the agency’s YouTube channel. Additional hearings have been set for next month.

Amtrak is seeking an STB order forcing CSX and Norfolk Southern to host double-daily passenger service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

Most of those who spoke reiterated points they had made in previous statements and filings with the STB before the hearings began.

FRA Administrator Amit Bose argued that neither CSX or NS had shown that passengers trains on the route would “unreasonably impair freight transportation.”

Bose argued that in creating the National Rail Passenger Corporation in 1970s to take over intercity passenger operations from freight railroads Congress didn’t intend that passenger service was required to accommodate freight operations.

Therefore, Bose said, host railroads “cannot effectively crowd out passenger service by claiming that it conflicts with their existing or planned operations.”

Southern Rail Commission Chairman Knox Ross testified that a CSX official told him in 2016 that the freight carrier would drop its opposition to Amtrak using the route if the passenger carrier limited Gulf Coast service to two New Orleans-Mobile roundtrips and dropped the idea of reviving service between New Orleans and Orlando, Florida.

Amtrak’s tri-weekly Sunset Limited used the route until August 2005 when it was heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Officially, the Sunset Limited was suspended although it continues to operate between New Orleans and Los Angeles.

A member of the rail passenger group Transportation for America, John Robert Smith, said CSX plans to automate seven drawbridges on the route, which would end the time-consuming and costly practice of transporting an operator to the bridges to manually open and close them.

Smith said CSX did not disclose those plans in its STB filings. The operation of the bridges would be done by remote control.

Some STB members made comments and asked questions during the hearings. Chairman Martin Oberman commented that the shipper and shipper trade association witnesses were relying on information provided by CSX to claim that passenger train operations would disrupt freight service rather than ascertain that by doing their own research.

He also suggested that the interchange of freight between the Port of Mobile and CSX had been exaggerated. Just 5 percent of the container traffic at the port is done by rail and that includes containers interchanged with Canadian via truck that crosses over the CSX tracks on a bridge.

However, one shipper witness was able to speak from the vantage point of having once worked as a Conrail dispatcher on a segment of a route used by Amtrak between Chicago and Cleveland.

Tom Giovinazzi, who now works for a building supply company, talked about how the imminent arrival of a passenger train could disrupt operations of a CSX local based in Mobile that serves his company’s cement plant in Theodore, Alabama.

Before the hearings began, Amtrak laid out its position on Twitter, saying that by law it has a legal right to use any rail line in the United States. 

“This was put into law 50 years ago when Congress created Amtrak to relieve freight railroads of their obligation to provide passenger service,” Amtrak said.

It also reiterated its contention that New Orleans-Mobile passenger service would not “unreasonably impair” freight-rail service as CSX and NS have argued.

“The route is far from its capacity,” Amtrak said. “CSX ran (about) 11 trains per day there in 2017.”

On the Eve of Hearings in a (Maybe) Critical Case

February 14, 2022

Over the next two days members of the U.S. Surface Transportation are going to be hearing a lot of exaggerations, half truths, contradictions and hyperbole as they listen to a long list of witnesses testify in the Gulf Coast passenger train service case.

The defendant host railroads, CSX and Norfolk Southern, and their allies, will exaggerate the effects that new double-daily Amtrak service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, will have on the freight operations of those railroads. They will overstate how much work is needed on their track to enable it to host passenger service.

Amtrak and rail passenger advocates will exaggerate the benefits of and need for intercity rail passenger service not just along the Gulf Coast but everywhere.

The hearings are not designed for STB members to question or cross examine those speaking in an effort to root out the fallacies of their arguments.

The witnesses have a limited time to speak – as little as three minutes for many of them – and the hearings are but one step of a long process. Additional hearings will be held next month at which the direct parties to the case will present their evidence.

Ostensibly the case, which was brought by Amtrak against NS and CSX in March 2021, is about the passenger carrier using the power of the STB to force two recalcitrant host railroads into allowing the Amtrak trains to use their tracks.

That includes what level of capital projects are needed to enable the passenger trains to operate without unduly interfering with freight operations of the host railroads.

Much of what has been written about the Gulf Coast has zeroed in on the precedent that could be set in the STB’s decision.

The direct parties to the case, Amtrak, CSX, NS and the Alabama port agency that operates the Port of Mobile, understand this, which is why they have been fighting unusually hard in a dispute that is now into its sixth year.

From an Amtrak perspective, what is at stake is the meaning of its legal right of access to use the property of a host railroad.

From a host railroad perspective, what is at stake is control, particularly who gets to determine the level of capital improvements needed on a rail line to host passenger trains. The host railroads want to control that and not have those decisions made by government regulators.

All of this assumes that in deciding the Gulf Coast case, the STB will issue a determinant and definitive ruling on the scope of Amtrak’s legal right of access to the property of a host railroad.

Rail passenger advocates want that right of access to be as broad as possible. Host railroads want a narrow interpretation.

From my distant view, it might be that the STB will make a narrow ruling in the case meaning it will decide the Gulf Coast case on the merits of that particular case without issuing the type of far-reaching interpretation that each sides seems to want.

If the STB does that, that favors host railroads because it would preserve the status quo. That would be true even if the STB orders CSX and NS to host the trains and, in effect, decides that their demands for capital improvements were excessive.

That would be a source of great frustration and consternation for rail passengers advocates who fantasize about an expansive intercity rail passenger network that resembles the interstate highway system. They will have, to use the cliche, won the battle but not the war.

I have purposely used the term “property” in this analysis because when STB members retreat to their conference room later this year to deliberate they will be mindful that they are ruling on the scope of the federal government’s authority to dictate to private property owners – in this railroad companies – what one or more parties who are not co-owners or even stockholders of that railroad company can and cannot do with that railroad’s property.

STB members will not enter those discussions with minds that are blank slates. They have had years of practice in their previous jobs to work out their philosophical views on what should be the role of government agencies, whether regulatory, legislative, executive or judicial in regulating private property owners.

In this county owning property means a lot, particularly if a property owner is wealthy and has the financial resources to fight for his or her interests in courtrooms, legislative chambers, executive branch offices, and even in the “court of public opinion.”

That is something to keep in mind as you anticipate the STB ruling.

The STB members also are aware that they will not necessarily be the last word on the issues before them in the Gulf Coast case.

Parties who are unhappy with the case outcome are likely to take their grievances to court, to legislative bodies, and to executive branch officials.

It is not that STB members will be looking over their shoulders at what other powerful government officials might do. It is to say STB members are aware that their authority is constrained at some level by others.

Of course it is not out of the question that the parties in the case might settle their differences before the STB issues its ruling. It happens often in criminal and civil cases alike, particularly when you fear being on the receiving end of a really bad decision by a jury or judge.

Much of what will be said during this phase of the Gulf Coast case hearings is about various stakeholders asserting tribal identity, giving voice to their vision of how things ought to be, and trying to draw lines in ever-shifting sands.

I won’t hazard a guess as to how the STB will rule but I will predict that it probably will turn out to mean not as much as the parties hope that it will. There are powerful forces at work and have been for decades that have kept intercity rail passenger service in a state of relative status quo.

Intercity rail isn’t going away, but it’s not going to expand exponentially either.

Witness List Set for STB Hearings

February 12, 2022

The witness list was released on Friday for next week’s hearings by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board in the Amtrak Gulf Coast service case.

The list is lengthy and includes representatives of the parties to the case, rail passenger advocates, railroad shippers, industry trade groups, and elected officials from the federal, state and local levels..

Some speakers will have no more than three minutes to state their position. The most that any speaker will have is 15 minutes.

The proceeding will begin at 9:30 a.m. (EST) and be carried live on the STB’s YouTube channel.

Speakers will address Board members via Zoom. The list of speakers can be found at https://dcms-external.s3.amazonaws.com/DCMS_External_PROD/1644618832480/51133.pdf

The list does not give the exact time that each speaker will appear, but does list the order or their appearances.

The STB had said earlier that if more time is needed to hear from everyone, the hearings will be continued into the next day.

The Feb. 15 hearings are first of two the agency will conduct in the case. A pre-evidentiary hearing will be held on March 9 at which time the parties involved in the dispute will present their case.

Amtrak brought the case in March 2021 in an effort to get federal regulators to order CSX and Norfolk Southern to allow double-daily passenger service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

CSX track would be used for the lion’s share of the route. The parties have been at odds over what capacity improvements are needed to accommodate the Amtrak service.

The route had until August 2005 hosted Amtrak’s tri-weekly Sunset Limited east of New Orleans. That train was suspended on that segment of its route after Hurricane Katrina damaged the railroad and station infrastructure.

The witness list will include Amtrak President Stephen Gardner; Federal Railroad Administrator Amit Bose; Association of American Railroads CEO Ian Jeffries; American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association President Chuck Baker; and attorneys representing CSX and NS.

Charles “Wick” Moorman, who served as CEO of an Amtrak host railroad, Norfolk Southern, and as Amtrak CEO is also scheduled to speak.

RPA Solicits Support in Gulf Coast Case

February 10, 2022

A rail passenger advocacy group is seeking to rally its own supporters in advance of a hearing by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board regarding new Amtrak service along the Gulf Coast.

The Rail Passengers Association has created an online petition that counters in part a similar petition established by CSX for shippers to take the Class 1 railroad’s side in the case.

Amtrak brought the action against CSX and Norfolk Southern in a bid to get federal regulators to order the two railroads to host twice daily new service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

Amtrak contends the host railroads have been unduly dragging their feet in the matter and demanding exorbitant capital projects to increase the capacity of the route to be used.

The RPA petition favors an STB order to restore intercity rail passenger service on a route that has been without it since August 2005 when the tri-weekly Sunset Limited was suspended in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

STB hearings in the Gulf Coast service case are set to be held on Feb. 15 and March 9.