Posts Tagged ‘Southern Rail Commission’

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 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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.