US: STB Hearing Begins into Amtrak Petition to Operate Gulf Coast Passenger Service

A US Surface Transportation Board (STB) hearing has begun into whether Amtrak can operate a passenger rail service between Mobile and New Orleans along America’s Gulf Coast, which has been without Amtrak services since Hurricane Katrina hit the region in 2005.

CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern (NS) freight railroads are against Amtrak’s petition to the STB, citing that such a service would unreasonably impair their services. Amtrak wishes to run two services per day.

CSX has said it will only support its introduction if Amtrak funded 14 infrastructure projects that would ensure freight traffic wasn’t affected by the new passenger service.

Alongside testimonies from CSX and Norfolk Southern representatives, the STB public hearing has heard from members of the Southern Rail Commission, elected officials from the Gulf Coast and rail associations.

Aside from the freight railroads, those that have testified have been for the reintroduction of a passenger service in the region.

For example, John Spain, Vice-Chair of the Southern Rail Commission, highlighted that the rail line would not only provide a significant economic impact to the region, but also serve as a vital evacuation route during frequent storms experienced in coastal communities.

Greg White, Former Chairman of the Southern Rail Commission testified that discussions into the passenger rail service began 17 years ago, but were stalled when CSX walked away from negotiations over concerns that the passenger route would interfere with the Port of Mobile’s rail yard and a statement that “they would require a $2.3 billion dollar price tag”.

Greg White, Former Chairman of the Southern Rail Commission, said:

“We cannot allow unsupported, unreasonable demands by CSX to overturn long-established law and veto passenger rail that’s supported by the people and by leadership of the coastal south!”

Amit Bose, Federal Railroad Administrator, expressed that the STB’s decision will have far reaching implications beyond the Gulf Coast, as it’s pivotal for passenger rail expansion throughout the country.

He noted that the federal infrastructure bill reaffirms the importance of passenger rail in connecting communities and the need to expand across the US. He added the expansive vision in the bill rests largely on the ability to introduce passenger rail service to operate on the freight host railroad tracks.

In this case, the host railroads haven’t met their burden of demonstrating that passenger rail would unreasonably impair their operations, he said.

At the hearing John Robert Smith, Chairman, Transportation for America, Policy Advisor to the SRC, said:

“It's time to reconnect our cities of the Gulf Coast with passenger rail and the economic opportunities that it brings and it’s time for CSX to seek only the infrastructure improvements needed to facilitate this passenger rail.

“That is the law, and the American taxpayers deserve nothing less.”

On Twitter, Amtrak said the efforts by CSX and Norfolk Southern to prevent Amtrak from running services were in “bad faith”. It also noted that Amtrak had the right to access any US rail line, something that was put into law when Congress created Amtrak to relieve freight railroads of their obligation to provide passenger services.

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