A passenger rail line that was a casualty of Hurricane Katrina now sits in the eye of another storm — this one pitting freight versus passenger rail.
Advocates of bringing back a long-distance Amtrak route between Mobile, Ala., and New Orleans — a 144-mile drive on Interstate 10 — say it would be an important step in the long recovery from the 2005 natural disaster, bring in tourism dollars and serve as a symbol of the passenger rail renaissance promised by President Joe Biden.
Opponents say restoring the route would exacerbate supply chain issues that have bedeviled the Biden presidency.
The independent Surface Transportation Board, which regulates freight rail, will hear evidentiary testimony on the dispute March 9 and 10.
While the board’s decision is about one long-distance Amtrak route, advocates for restoring the service say it will have far more sweeping impact: They say if the board decides in favor of Amtrak, freight rail companies will have a playbook to draw from in barring passenger trains from using their increasingly in-demand tracks.
If the board decides in favor of freight, it could slow or halt the addition of the nearly 30 new routes Amtrak hopes to add by 2035.
The case, said passenger rail advocate John Robert Smith, former mayor of Meridian, Miss., and chairman of advocacy organization Transportation for America, “is a bellwether for whether we’ll have expanded passenger rail in this country or not.”
Congress compels freight railroads to permit Amtrak to use their right of way under the 1970 Rail Passenger Service Act. But CSX and Norfolk Southern, which own most of the tracks Amtrak would use for the restored route, argue that such arrangements are only acceptable when the new passenger trains do not “unreasonably" impair freight transportation. They cite a 2021 study to demonstrate that Amtrak’s new routes would do just that.
The companies are arguing that Amtrak should be liable for the cost of some 14 infrastructure projects, estimated to cost between $405 million and $440 million, that would allow it to run daily trains without interfering with freight traffic. Amtrak has said it has about $66 million for infrastructure improvements.
“Amtrak is seeking to force its way onto our rail lines without consideration of any of the impacts it would have on our existing and future customers and the local communities,” James Foote, CEO of CSX, said at a Surface Transportation Board hearing gathering public comment on the issue earlier this month. “There is a very real need for new infrastructure to accommodate Amtrak’s proposed new passenger rail service that should not be ignored.”
Foote said CSX “is not against the introduction of new passenger rail service,” but that “it must be done in a safe and efficient manner, which will require sufficient infrastructure investment.” He said Amtrak is well-positioned to pay for the improvements; rail received $66 billion in the recently passed bipartisan infrastructure law.
Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner said the study cited by CSX and Norfolk Southern included assumptions that the two freight railroads did not share with Amtrak or the Federal Railroad Administration, which paid for the study. The modeling, he said, served “no purpose other than to obfuscate and delay.”
He said Congress first created a Gulf Coast Working Group aimed at restoring the service during the 2015 highway law. CSX, he said, “ultimately refused” to join that working group and “did not participate in good faith.”
Gardner said funding for Amtrak in the 2021 infrastructure law should not require it to simply “acquiesce” to CSX and Norfolk Southern’s demands that it pay for infrastructure.
“Congress didn’t enact the [bipartisan law] to fund the gold plating of freight railroad lines in order for them just to live up to their legal obligations to permit Amtrak operations,” he said.
Amtrak’s desire to reinstate the service has the support of two powerful lawmakers. During a two-day Surface Transportation Board hearing this month, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., and Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, both advocated bringing back the Gulf Coast line. Wicker said bringing service back would continue and complete the recovery from the hurricane.
“This is unambiguous,” said DeFazio, adding that “nothing in the statute ... would justify these extraordinary delays, gross overcharges to access existing rail lines” that have marked CSX and Norfolk Southern’s resistance to allowing Amtrak to use its right-of-way.
While some of the impacted communities say they’d be thrilled to have passenger service restored, not all share that enthusiasm.
Joel Daves, a city councilman in Mobile, argues that bringing back passenger rail would hurt the port of Mobile, which is one of the top 15 ports in the country. The port claims to support roughly 161,000 jobs and generate nearly $27 billion in economic activity annually. It depends on freight rail to haul goods.
He said he wants to see a study that would determine whether the restoration of passenger rail would impact the movement of traffic through the port.
“We have the greatest port in the world,” Daves said. “But if people can’t ship goods into and out of that port on an efficient basis, they’re going to go to a different port.”