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STB hears from advocates, opponents of Amtrak Gulf Coast service

Amtrak wants to restore passenger-rail service in the Gulf Coast for the first time since Hurricane Katrina struck the region in 2005.
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The Surface Transportation Board (STB) yesterday began a two-day hearing to receive public comments on Amtrak's proposal to restore passenger-rail service along the Gulf Coast.

Several political, business and public policy leaders and interested members of the public offered testimony, explaining their reasons for favoring or opposing the national intercity passenger railroad's request to run two daily roundtrips on a route between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

Amtrak trains haven't operated along the Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina destroyed rail infrastructure there in 2005. The railroad is now appealing to the STB to require host railroads CSX and Norfolk Southern Railway to allow Amtrak trains to run on the line.

Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Administrator Amit Bose told STB members that their decision in the Amtrak case will have far-reaching implications beyond the Gulf Coast and "will be pivotal to the future development of intercity passenger rail" in the United States.

"We believe it is imperative that the board use its authority to ensure that host railroads fulfill their fundamental statutory obligations to allow the expansion and improvement of intercity passenger-rail services," Bose said.

The recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) "reaffirms" the importance of passenger rail and provides an unprecedented level of funding for it, Bose noted.

He also addressed the CSX and NS argument that Amtrak's two daily round-trip trains on the Gulf Coast route would "unreasonably" impair freight-rail service along the route. However, CSX and NS have not met the statutorily mandated burden of demonstrating that the Amtrak service would impair freight service, Bose said.

In fact, when Congress passed the law that established Amtrak 50 years ago, it required host railroads to give Amtrak trains preference when using those tracks. The presumption is that passenger service will operate, Bose testified.

In deciding Amtrak's current application, the board should "ensure that freight railroads cannot effectively crowd out passenger service by claiming that it conflicts with their existing or planned railroad operations. That is now what was meant by 'unreasonable impairment.' "

The FRA has no interest in undermining freight-rail operations, Bose said. If the STB grants Amtrak's application, FRA will closely monitor it, provide technical assistance if operational challenges occur and report regularly to the board on the status of those efforts, he said.

Also speaking in support of Amtrak's application was U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

"A cooperative relationship between the freight railroads and Amtrak is essential to give Americans access to intercity passenger-rail transportation that is safe, efficient and on time," DeFazio said.

The STB is the entity that Congress made responsible for ensuring Amtrak's rights to access freight rights-of-way. Although Congress has chronically underfunded Amtrak, that will change under the historic levels of passenger rail funding in the IIJA, DeFazio said.

"To avoid squandering these historic federal funds, Amtrak’s rights to access, preference and additional trains need to be fully enforced," DeFazio said. "We have the greatest freight rail system in the world, and we want to keep it that way.  But we also know that the freight railroads have both the ability — and notably, the legal mandate — to provide Amtrak the level of service, access and preference it requires to operate and grow its intercity passenger-rail network."

However, several business leaders and Alabama representatives said Gulf Coast passenger rail would disrupt freight-rail transportation, hurt the industries that rely on it and negatively impact the Port of Mobile. All of that would further exacerbate regional and national supply-chain challenges, those speakers argued.

Representing the freight-rail industry during the hearing were Ian Jefferies, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads (AAR), and Chuck Baker, president of the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA).

While not taking a specific position on Amtrak's application for Gulf Coast service, Jefferies and Baker asked the STB to consider the consequences their decision will have on freight-rail service and the precedent it will establish as Amtrak pursues expansion of intercity passenger-rail service elsewhere in the country.

The STB is scheduled to hear additional public comments today. The second phase of the STB hearing on Amtrak's application will begin March 9 with an evidentiary hearing.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

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