Amtrak files petition to restart passenger rail service along Gulf Coast
BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - After more than five years of data-driven and federally-led studies, Amtrak filed a petition before the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to require CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Railway to allow the operation of two daily Amtrak trains between New Orleans and Mobile starting in 2022.
The Surface Transportation Board is an independent federal agency that oversees economic regulation of rail and has jurisdiction over certain passenger rail issues.
Under STB procedures, CSX and Norfolk Southern 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.
In the filing, Amtrak asks for expedited consideration and an order allowing twice daily round-trips starting on or about Jan. 1, 2022. These trains would operate for the Southern Rail Commission (SRC), a federally created entity representing Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
Mississippi Coast leaders have supported the concept of a revived Amtrak line since it was first proposed in 2015.
Everybody liked the idea of giving New Orleans tourists an easy route to visit Coast cities, and visible support for the project is still strong.
However, in the background, there has been a conflict between freight and passenger rail operators over the project.
The two interests would have to share the same rail line, and the freight operators don’t want to pull to the side four times a day while the Amtrak train passes.
In May of 2017, CSX, whose line would carry the bulk of the traffic, refused to agree on a dollar figure needed to make infrastructure repairs. The gap was huge.
The Southern Rail Commission said in a letter that “CSX has demonstrated a commitment to obfuscation and deceit,” in the way they were doing business with the rest of the GCWG.
A report paving the way for the project was finally issued and money started flowing into the project. The $33 million of federal money was matched by $15 million from Mississippi, $10 million from Louisiana, and $6 million from Amtrak.
Later in June, the University of Southern Mississippi National Center for Excellence in Economic Development and Entrepreneurship issued a study touting the potential economic benefits of the Amtrak line.
The study said the passenger line will generate $282.58 million annually in Mississippi, including $92 million in Harrison County, but the study’s numbers were created through “aspirational scenarios.
The study’s author, Dr. Yuanyuan Zhang, said researchers “all agreed that you need to consider the freight to be a better study,” but time restrictions prevented it.
That omission was noted by Bill Cork of the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission. Their Bienville Industrial Park relies heavily on freight delivered on the CSX line that would have to yield to Amtrak four times a day.
In a June 2018 letter to CSX that was copied to Gov. Phil Bryant, Sen. Roger Wicker, and Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, and others, Cork said “We have serious concerns about the effects of passenger trains on local freight service and question the economic benefits claimed for the potential new passenger service.
“We are deeply concerned that plans and hopes for new passenger service lack context. Rail freight capacity along the Mississippi Gulf Coast is a limited and valuable resource that cannot be quickly traded for hopes for trainloads of tourists.”
The Southern Rail Commission responded with a letter countering those claims. In the end, the project was approved, but a new study must now be conducted by CSX, Norfolk Southern, and Amtrak to determine how to make the rail line work with the available $66 million.
“Amtrak has a right to use these railroads’ tracks but, unfortunately, we have been unable to reach agreement after years of effort just to operate two short and quick round trip Amtrak trains,” said Dennis Newman, Amtrak Executive Vice President for Planning and Asset Development.
“Elsewhere in the U.S., both CSX and NS successfully serve Amtrak and freight customers, coexisting and even thriving where there are more freight trains and less infrastructure than what is available on the Gulf Coast today,” he continued.
“We want to deliver this service next year, not some day far away, and the STB is the proper forum for resolution,” Newman added.
The Southern Rail Commission released the following statement in response to Amtrak’s filing:
“We lost passenger rail service along the Gulf Coast 15 years ago when Hurricane Katrina damaged the rails, and while those tracks have been repaired, passenger rail did not restart. Congress directed the FRA to lead an analysis to determine everything it would take to return service, and the SRC worked with the FRA to deliver that report in 2017, which identified $66 million in infrastructure needs. We have that funding now secured and we are ready to move forward,” said Knox Ross, Mississippi SRC Commissioner. “Our local communities are frustrated by all the years of studying and waiting, and we are hoping this public and transparent process will resolve all outstanding issues so that service can begin soon.”
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