Posts Tagged ‘New Orleans-Mobile 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.”

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 Takes Gulf Coast Service Dispute to STB

March 19, 2021

Amtrak wants the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to break a stalemate it has with CSX and Norfolk Southern over the implementation of new rail passenger service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

The passenger carrier believes an STB order is needed to get the two host railroads to cooperate on hosting a proposed new service.

“Under STB procedures, CSX and NS will be required to provide Amtrak access to their railroads for this service or prove to the public why they cannot successfully host these trains in accordance with the law,” Amtrak said in a statement.

The passenger carrier contends that it has a legal right to use this route and that there is sufficient capacity to host these trains.

The Amtrak statement noted that $66 million in targeted improvements to support the new intercity passenger rail service along the line awaits action of the host railroads.

Funding for the service has been approved by the Federal Railroad Administration, Amtrak and state and local governments in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Industry observers say Amtrak appears to be bringing a test case to determine how the STB will handle other intercity passenger rail proposals.

Amtrak has been talking about seeking Congressional approval to fund a series of corridor services around the country although a formal proposal has yet to be made.

The latest STB filing seeks expedited consideration. Amtrak wants to begin the Mobile service on or about Jan. 1, 2022.

Amtrak does not have contracts with CSX or NS to host the Mobile service.

Last year the passenger carrier was participating in a modeling study to determine how rail passenger service would affect the freight operations of the host railroads.

However, Amtrak’s contract to use the modeling program expired before the study was completed.

Instead, Amtrak has asked CSX and NS to provide a list of infrastructure improvements needed to get the service started by 2022.

The Gulf Coast service has been in the talking and negotiating stages for the past five years.

Amtrak last served the region in August 2005 with its tri-weekly Sunset Limited. That service was suspended after Hurricane Katrina damaged stations and tracks used by Nos. 1 and 2.

NS issued a statement noting it is in litigation over the service and reiterated a previous statement it made in February saying, “There is an established process for introducing new passenger rail service on freight rail lines recognized by both the freight and passenger railroad industries.

“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.

“The public entities sponsoring the service finance the infrastructure construction prior passenger service being introduced. It is a well-instituted process, one that history has shown to work. Norfolk Southern welcomes the prospect that this process will be revived and completed in the proposed Mobile-New Orleans service.”

CSX issued a similar statement noting the matter is before the STB.

The CSX statement also said,  “Amtrak elected to abandon the long-standing practice of completing an impact study when the introduction of new passenger service is proposed.”

Amtrak’s filing with the STB said it began working with the host railroads, the FRA and the Southern Rail Commission in 2015 on restoring Gulf Coast service.

An FRA study released in July 2017 by the agency’s Gulf Coast Working Group outlined needed improvements to the service.

The SRC has since landed $33 million in federal grants to help pay for those improvements.

CSX, NS Want Capacity Study Completed on Gulf Coast Service

March 14, 2021

In letters sent to the Alabama State Port Authority, CSX and Norfolk Southern have outlined their objections to Amtrak’s stated intent to begin service in 2022 between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

CSX Assistant Vice President of Passenger Operations Andy Daly said a modeling study of how Amtrak operations would affect CSX freight service needs to be completed before the Class 1 railroad will discuss infrastructure needs for passenger service.

His letter does not address the question of whether CSX would be willing to talk with Amtrak without completion of the modeling studies.

Daly said in his letter that three separate modeling studies have been conducted since 2016, “but none have modeled this new twice-daily roundtrip between New Orleans and Mobile.”

Those studies anticipated two daily roundtrips between New Orleans and Mobile with one of them continuing eastward to Orlando, Florida.

NS would host just five miles of the 140-mile route but also insisted that the traffic modeling study be completed.

The study in question uses the Rail Traffic Controller software.

During a recently meeting of the Southern Rail Commission, Amtrak Senior Director of Host Railroads Jim Blair said the carrier was working on the RTC study but encountered numerous delays that have prevented the study from being completed last year as expected.

He said the study was supposed to take seven months “but into December [2020] we weren’t progressing. Then in January, the consultant came back to us and said that much of the work that had been done was not usable because there was a modification to the software.

“That was actually implemented in February of this year, and that made much of the prior work unusable.”

Blair said Amtrak management felt that despite spending money and effort it wasn’t getting any closer to being able to launch the Mobile service and the agreement to use the RTC program then expired.

Alternatively, Amtrak decided to seek the views of CSX and NS management as to what it would take to enable the service to begin in 2022.

The Alabama port authority has long opposed the Amtrak service for fear that it will disrupt rail service at the port of Mobile. It, too, has said it wants the RTC study to be completed.

Another unresolved issue is the location of a permanent Mobile station. One proposal has called for having the trains serve a location at Brookley Airport rather than in downtown Mobile.

In the meantime, Amtrak has said it is seeking Federal Railroad Administration approval to begin spending its own money on rebuilding station facilities between New Orleans and Mobile.

In Mobile that would include rehabilitating the station downtown once used by Amtrak’s Sunset Limited when it served the city.

The Sunset Limited ceased operating east of New Orleans in August in the wake of damage to the route and stations facilities caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Some observers believe that the unresolved issues over the Mobile route will wind up before the U.S. Surface Transportation Board.

STB Chairman Martin Oberman, speking to a Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center webinar, said that if a freight railroad denies Amtrak access to their tracks, federal law “make[s] it clear we have the power to order such access and the terms of it.”

Amtrak to Pay for Gulf Coast Station Rehabilitation

March 13, 2021

Amtrak wants to pay to repair station platforms once used by its Sunset Limited east of New Orleans.

The platforms would be used by a proposed new service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, that Amtrak wants to begin in 2022.

The boarding sites were damaged in August 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. Shortly after the storm stuck, Amtrak suspended operation of the Sunset Limited east of New Orleans.

Amtrak is seeking approval from the Federal Railroad Administration to make the station repairs.

Amtrak Vice President of Stations and Accessibility, David Handera, said at a recently meeting of the Southern Rail Commission that the repairs are the first phase of a rehabilitation project Amtrak plans to undertake to ready the route for passenger service.

The stations are located in four Mississippi cities, Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Pascagoula, and Biloxi, and Mobile, Alabama.

Handera said a temporary platform is needed in Pascagoula because CSX tracks has seen been related always from the site of the former platform.

“We are working with the FRA on assembling funding sources for the short-term and long-term repairs,” Handera said.

He said Amtrak would develop in a second phase of the project “new accessible, well-lit platforms.”

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.

Survey to Study Proposed Louisiana Route Ridership

June 10, 2020

Researchers at the University of New Orleans are sponsoring an poll to gauge potential ridership for a proposed rail link between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

The data would be used to update a decade-old study that predicted the service would attract 39,000 riders per month and up to 135,000 monthly by 2038.

The latest survey will see to better define ridership than the earlier study, which used more generic national figures.

The proposed service would link to a New Orleans-Mobile, Alabama, route that the Southern Rail Commission is seeking to implement.

The Mobile service has received some federal grant money to help it get started.

The Louisiana survey is being paid for by $150,000 from the LSU Tran-SET consortium.

FRA Awards Grants for Passenger Rail Projects

May 7, 2020

The Federal Railroad Administration announced this week that it has awarded more than $22 million in grant funding to three passenger-rail projects affecting eight states.

The money from the Restoration and Enhancement Grant Program is aimed at projects to “initiate, restore or enhance intercity passenger-rail service around the country,” FRA officials said in a news release release.

The grants will help fund a possible expansion of Amtrak service between Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul, a possible restoration of Amtrak service along the Gulf Coast and improving CTrail Service in Connecticut.

The Southern Rail Commission received $5.45 million to be used to implement Amtrak service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation received $12,569,200 toward the Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago Intercity Passenger-Rail Service Project.

The project calls for adding a second daily roundtrip train between Chicago and St. Paul, Minnesota, to supplement Amtrak’s Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder.

The additional train would provide more convenient travel times and serve 12 stations in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation received $4,395,616 for the CTrail-Hartford Line Rail Enhancement Project.

That project envisions two additional weekday trains between New Haven, Connecticut, and Springfield, Massachusetts.

The additional service will allow for more connections with MTA Metro-North Railroad and Amtrak trains.

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.