The slugfest between Amtrak on one side and CSX, NS, and the Port of Mobile on the other, has been long. It has lasted for ten full days plus an afternoon so far, and reached its originally scheduled conclusion on Thursday, May 11. That was the half-day, following the morning appearance of Chair Martin J. Oberman and other members of the Surface Transportation Board (STB) before the House Transportation & Infrastructure (T&I) Committee.
In all likelihood, it was the longest hearing (actually a trial conducted as a litigation) in the Board’s history, and it was definitely a seminal case of first impression. As we know now, it’s not over yet. Oberman has called the parties back for an encore performance on Monday, June 13 to fill factual gaps in the record, which the Board needs to make the sort of decision that will set policy and precedent for the future, as Amtrak or states seek to establish new or restored passenger train routes. CSX, NS, and the Port have again requested mediation and Amtrak opposes that request, so it is not known if the trial’s continuation will be postponed.
We have already reported on the presentations by CSX, NS, and the Port of Mobile, including testimony of their witnesses. This report will concern Amtrak’s case and the four witnesses who spoke on Amtrak’s behalf. Scheduling constraints did not make anybody’s job easier, and there was a 20-day hiatus between the first and second days of Amtrak’s 3½-day presentation. We last reported to you (after Round 6) about the Port’s case, which ended on April 18. Amtrak began its case the next day, but had to wait until May 9 to continue, and Amtrak’s presentation continued May 10-11. It started in COVID-influenced “remote” mode and ended with most of the concerned individuals sitting in the STB’s hearing room in Washington, D.C.
Round 7: Amtrak Presents Its Case
Amtrak’s case was a continuation of the “Battle of the Experts” over Rail Traffic Control (RTC) modeling, which seemed to dominate almost the entire trial. There was much less time spent on direct examination (where the lawyer for the side who called the witness brings out that person’s testimony) than on cross-examination (where the lawyer for the other side asks adversarial questions in an effort to force the witness to admit factual errors or to admit not having a good recollection of the subject matter). In that way, the purpose of cross-examination is designed to demonstrate that, for some reason, the trier of fact should not believe the witness; at least not about a particular point in dispute. It should be noted that, in this particular case, the “triers of fact” are the five members of the STB. In ordinary civil litigation, they are a judge and jury.
It’s tricky to report on an unfolding drama, even a dull one, when the word is already out about what happened next. It is also difficult to boil an entire 3½-day presentation down to a word count of about 1000 words to summarize a trial day that lasted for nine hours or more. Still, there were only a few basic issues raised during the entire trial, including Amtrak’s presentation of its witnesses and the cross-examination by the lawyers who represent the railroads and the Port. In a nutshell placed inside of another nutshell, the 11-day trial was not so much about the infrastructure that must be built to accommodate both the new Amtrak trains and the freight operations on NS in New Orleans and on CSX the rest of the way to Mobile, but on the RTC model on which everyone seemed to pin their hopes for the technical solution to the dilemma of how to find room for both on the railroad in question.
Amtrak called four witnesses. The first was Thomas D. Crowley, President of the consulting firm L.E. Peabody & Associates, Inc. (Peabody). The third was Daniel L. Fapp, Senior Vice-President of the same firm. In between was Jim Blair, Amtrak’s Assistant Vice-President for Host Railroads. Amtrak’s final witness was Clayton Jonanson, Principal Consultant at DB E.C.O. North America, Inc. (DB). While Blair’s testimony was scheduled between that of the two consultants for Peabody, we will report on the two Peabody witnesses before turning to Blair and then Johanson.
Crowley led off by saying that Amtrak had hired Peabody to review, verify, and audit the RTC model prepared by the R.L. Banks & Associates, which had been the featured subject matter of the cases for CSX, NS, and the Port. Earlier in the proceedings, Charlie Banks, Larry Guthrie, and Mark Dengler had testified extensively about the model and had been cross-examined by lawyers for Amtrak. Crowley explained that the purpose of the RTC model was “to make the evaluated rail line run better.” In reviewing the Banks-Guthrie model in the present case, though, he encountered “missing trains” and said that he had attempted to get the “missing data” but was told that CSX had “no record” of what he had requested. He complained that he couldn’t verify some of the data and couldn’t replicate some, because a random distribution calculation had been used when generating it, instead of real-time data that would show all specific moves along the corridor at issue.
Crowley criticized the Banks-Guthrie model for using a 95% on-time-performance standard for the proposed Amtrak trains, rather than the customary 80%, and adding infrastructure to reach the 95% OTP standard in the simulation; infrastructure that could be costly but could also be unnecessary. He suggested an approach of solving each problem on the line with an infrastructure project as needed.
He complained that the model used proprietary software so data could not be replicated, and that train delays were randomized with proprietary modeling. He alleged that there were 1265 movements on the line during the test period that CSX did not account for (1758 claimed, as opposed to 493 reported); 257% of CSX’s figure. He also said that, when working on a model in a previous case for Metra in Chicago, he had requested extra data from CP to make his RTC model work; an approach that worked then, but did not work in the present case.
Oberman asked if Amtrak had made its own RTC model or asked the STB to extend its discovery schedule to give Amtrak enough time to do so. Under the statute, the railroads bear the burden of proving that the proposed Amtrak service would “unreasonably impair” their freight operations, which could render Amtrak’s criticism of the model legitimate. Still, Oberman said that he was “nonplussed” by Amtrak’s approach and did not believe that there was sufficient ground to throw the model out.
The cross-examination by lawyers for CSX, NS, and the Port was strong, with the adversarial character normally associated with hard-fought litigation, rather than a fact-finding hearing conducted by an administrative agency. Most questions on cross dealt with minute points, rather than broad features of Amtrak’s overall case presentation. That was true for all of Amtrak’s witnesses; and they all faced cross from lawyers separately representing CSX, NS, and the Port. For example, the CSX lawyer alleged in his question to Crowley that Amtrak could have gotten an extension of time to visit Choctaw Yard in Mobile but did not, and that Amtrak could have gotten more information for its model, but did not.
Redirect examination occurs when the lawyer for the witness’s side asks direct questions to clarify issues raised on cross, or to rehabilitate credibility that has been damaged on cross (there can also be recross, which sometimes occurs after redirect, but questions must lie within the scope of the redirect examination). On redirect, Crowley again stated that the data supplied for the model at issue could not be traced back to the original operations on the line.
After Jim Blair took his turn, Peabody Senior Vice-President Daniel L. Fapp was next. He was assigned to evaluate the Banks-Guthrie RTC model, along with Crowley. Like Crowley, he criticized the model’s alleged practice of reporting impact data for “normal” trains derived by randomization, rather than using actual data. He said that it was impossible to tie data back to actual movements that way, and that the method at issue did not produce a complete flow of data. Fapp’s presentation did include some numbers, including the proposed Amtrak trains causing an average of 1.87 minutes of delay for each NS train on the Back Belt in New Orleans and reducing the speed of those trains by one tenth of one mile-per-hour. He also said that the delay on CSX would average 12.5 minutes per one hundred miles.
Board member Karen Hedlund asked Fapp if giving priority to Amtrak trains (a requirement) would lengthen running time, and Fapp said it would. Meanwhile, Oberman expressed deep concern about the lack of useful data. He said that he couldn’t fathom how the Board is supposed to understand the concerns at issue, especially with insufficient data to resolve an issue of 1265 disputed movements. More specifically, Oberman noted that the FRA had recommended certain projects to the Southern Rail Commission and that Amtrak had supported those projects, so why didn’t Amtrak add those projects to the model for CSX’s 2019 base case (the model of CSX operations without the passenger trains added). Board member Patrick Fuchs made an alternate suggestion: modeling the line for 2023, including CSX projections for growth in freight activity. Fapp said that was feasible, if his firm had the data to do it.
Jim Blair was the only Amtrak employee called as a witness. As Assistant Vice-President for Host Railroads, he heads the group that monitors host railroad performance and is a liaison for them. Near the beginning of his testimony, he noted that there were 21 freight trains on the Mobile & New Orleans route in 1995, but only half that many now, although the schedule in 1996 was ten minutes faster between the two endpoints than the currently-proposed schedule. He said that Amtrak had paid for infrastructure improvements for the prior service that CSX uses today. He also said that the Gulf Coast Working Group helped develop the service restoration plan for the proposed trains, which included the FRA’s suggestion of building $117,672,000 worth of infrastructure.
Blair said that Amtrak has modeled operational changes “in transparent fashion” but the incomplete 2020 RTC study at issue included “great difficulty” validating the railroads’ base case and a “very contentious” relationship with CSX and NS. In describing the 2020 study, Blair said it was governed by an agreement covering the scope of the study, data-sharing (confidentiality and process), and the work that consulting firm HDR was supposed to do. The agreement was supposed to run for one year, but only two of six tasks were completed, and there was no opportunity to collaborate with the railroads on implementing operational solutions. Blair added that Amtrak did not participate in the modeling for the Piedmont, Norfolk, or Roanoke studies on NS, which were part of the process of establishing services that run today.
Blair had other complaints about CSX, while claiming that Amtrak was doing its part. He said that the Southern Rail Commission (SRC) had a $33 million grant from the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements Program (CRISI) for a layover track in Mobile; a grant that Amtrak would match. As a backup plan or temporary measure, Amtrak planned to store the trains in Choctaw Yard, as had been done during during the brief times when there was a train on the route before. This time, he called for service to start, with new infrastructure to be built with service running. He also complained that Amtrak had hired crews for the new trains, but CSX would not let them qualify on the line. This time, he said that Amtrak wants an Order allowing the new trains to start running on a date certain.
Oberman challenged Blair about Amtrak approving the FRA infrastructure plan without its own RTC study, but Blair defended running service without it. Oberman then reiterated that a study is necessary. “That’s a lot of money to be spent without an RTC study” he said, adding that a study was needed to see what kind of results you get; “otherwise, you’re just guessing about the future.” Despite Oberman’s challenge, Blair stood by the FRA and Gulf Coast Working Group reports.
CSX lawyer Dan Donahoe cross-examined Blair and asked him if Mobile officials who opposed the plan (he named some) knew more about Mobile’s situation than Blair, but Blair stood his ground and continued to cite Amtrak’s assessment. He added that Amtrak had not ruled out a station near a proposed airport site at Brookley (south of downtown Mobile), but said the downtown location that had been used in the past was better. CSX lawyer Ray Atkins asked Blair if using Choctaw Yard for layover purposes would block the main eight times a day, but Blair said that such use would be only temporary, and that Amtrak was willing to work with the city to build at a better location, adding “There are places where a 400-foot train can be parked.” Oberman said that a station track would keep the Amtrak trains off the main, and Blair agreed. Oberman also said that a station track for layovers would minimize impacts on the Port. Still, he also criticized Amtrak for not fighting to get more data through discovery. Like Crowley before him and Fapp after him, Blair stood his ground during cross.
As mentioned previously, the timeline for Amtrak’s case was unusual. It started on Tuesday, April 19 with Crowley. Blair’s direct examination occurred that day, too, but his cross-examination did not begin until Monday, May 9. Fapp’s examination began that day and ended on Wednesday, May 11, when the final witness began his testimony, which concluded the next day.
He was Clayton Johanson, Principal Consultant for DB E.C.O. North America, Inc. Before he began his testimony, there was a dramatic moment concerning graphs that Johanson planned to submit as exhibits. CSX lawyer Ray Atkins objected to those exhibits and testimony surrounding them, and made a motion in limine; a motion to exclude proffered evidence from the record. Atkins argued that his side had not seen that information before, and used the phrase “litigation by ambush” to describe their potential introduction. Amtrak lawyers argued that the other side had access to all the information they contained from their own work papers, so there would be no surprise. Oberman allowed Johanson to start his testimony and said he would deal with the evidentiary motion when the issue came up.
Johanson had a different approach to evaluating capacity from the RTC methodology. He had worked for BNSF and was able to get more freight traffic onto that railroad’s Metra corridor between Chicago and Aurora by making operational changes. One of his projects was the realignment of service away from the traditional peak-hour commutation-oriented model on the BNSF Metra corridor to the post-COVID schedule with evenly-spaced service throughout the day, as we reported one year ago in our series on Commuting Post-COVID. He had also worked with Amtrak, BNSF, and several local passenger railroads in Southern California on part of the LOSSAN (Los Angeles – San Diego) Corridor and between Los Angeles and San Berardino.
He called for a holistic approach to capacity service planning. His method required cooperation between parties and making operational and technological changes before spending the money required to build additional infrastructure. He defined a “capacity unit” based on “standardized” freight and passenger trains, and used that to determine network supply. Johanson stressed that his method is not a simulation tool. He defined “capacity” as the number of train movements you can have on a line in a 24-hour day. He said that an Amtrak train would use 4 to 6 such capacity units, and developed a system for calculating capacity units and how train movements consume them, adding extra demand units for variability. Regarding the Gulf Coast line at issue, he said that the supply of capacity along the line was sufficient, given existing freight demand, to run the proposed Amtrak trains without new infrastructure. He did not say when new infrastructure might be needed, but his assertion reflected Amtrak’s position.
When it was time to consider the motion to exclude Johanson’s graphs from the record NS lawyer Matt Warren conducted a voir dire examination concerning them. That line is questioning is designed to test whether or not there has been a sufficient foundation laid to place the documents in question into the record. In essence, the railroads were making the same sort of complaint against Amtrak (not sharing data sufficiently) that Amtrak had made against CSX and NS concerning the RTC model at issue.
Johanson stressed that the objective was to squeeze the most out of the available capacity in the short run. Oberman questioned whether capacity alone is enough to meet the statutory standard, and alleged that Johanson’s expertise was not well-suited to the current assignment.
Cross examination focused on Johanson’s methodology, but he did the best he could to defend it. For example, Port attorney Rob Wimbish asked why Johanson had only one reference to the Port of Mobile or its railroad TASD in his report, Johanson replied that Amtrak would not be operating on TASD or Port property. However, he also agreed that it would be a good idea to build a station track at Mobile to expand capacity there.
Johanson continued to defend his methodology on redirect. He mentioned creating more conservative train profiles in Chicago that allowed BNSF to operate longer and heavier trains west of Chicago to Aurora, where Metra’s local passenger trains also operate (and presumably further west). He continued to maintain that, with enough capacity, engaged stakeholders, and operational planning, transparent efforts considering needs and goals can result in problems being solved.
With some of Johanson’s exhibits and testimony excluded from the record, it is unclear how much probative weight the STB will give his method, as part of fact-finding about the line in question. The RTC modeling has dominated the long hearing so far, and will continue to do so when the parties and the Board reconvene next month. Now is not the time for speculative comments; they will come later.
Round 8: Score One for Oberman
As part of our extensive coverage of the adversarial proceeding between Amtrak on one side and CSX, NS and the Port of Mobile on the other, we provided an “interim report” about STB Chair Martin J. Oberman’s address to the parties at the conclusion of what would otherwise have been the end of the witness phase of the trial. As we reported, Oberman asked both sides to come back on June 13 and produce more evidence that he and his colleagues believe they need to decide the matter properly. To this writer, Oberman’s statement was an amazing development; one that would not occur at that stage of an ordinary civil trial, where a jury decides which party will win and a judge instructs that jury.
The proceeding now taking place before the STB is different. The Board has a statutory mandate to consider the public interest and how its decision will affect the public beyond the specific interests of Amtrak, the two freight-carrying railroads, and the Port of Mobile. There are also the shippers and recipients of freight shipped on those and other railroads, riders who would use the proposed trains and who have not experienced daily train service between New Orleans and Mobile since 1970, except for two brief periods in 1984-85 and 1996-97. There are also other public interests not immediately at issue, but they will be soon. Amtrak wants to establish dozens more corridors; at least some will require new infrastructure before the trains run, and the outcome of the present case will decide how those future cases will be handled. As we reported last Friday, Oberman gave us an indication the day before.
In doing so, he did not favor one side over the other, but criticized both and called for them to come back with more information about their real-time or proposed operations, and about what new infrastructure would actually be needed to run the two proposed daily round trips between New Orleans and Mobile. He mentioned during the trial that he has more than 50 years of experience as a trial lawyer, so he would know how the parties would need to prove their cases. He would also know what sort of information would also be needed in future similar cases, where the Board would continue to operate under its statutory mandate in 49 U.S.C. §24308, which implies protecting the public interest.
Some of us here at Railway Age pride ourselves on being “active seniors” who remember a time when there were more trains and a more-comprehensive network of rail transit than the nation has today. That also goes for members of organizations like the Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee at NJ Transit (SCDRTAC, of which this writer is a member), and many advocacy organizations at the national, state, and regional levels. But few of us could keep up with Oberman, the “active senior” who is fighting to protect the public interest by using his position at the STB.
Oberman is 77 and still going strong; a longtime Chicagoan who maintained an independent path during his time on the city’s Board of Aldermen (Chicago’s name for the City Council) and ran three times for the office of Attorney General of Illinois. He now seems to be giving us a taste of how he would have performed as “AG” if the voters had made a different choice. On May 12, he spent the morning before the House Transportation & Infrastructure (T&I) Committee, standing up for his agency. Then, in the afternoon, he concluded the proceeding about proposed passenger trains between New Orleans and Mobile with a 35-minute statement that made it clear to Amtrak, CSX, NS, and the Port of Mobile that he was in charge and he was going to do his job.
An Interim Report on Oberman’s statement, which ran on May 13 in the Commentary section, was not comprehensive. Its purpose was to impart some of the flavor of Oberman in action. In this report, we will have more to say about that statement, as well as a bit of background from earlier in the case that we have been covering so extensively for so long.
Our previous report contained some highlights from Oberman’s statement. He stressed the importance of the public interest throughout the case, including in his Thursday statement. He criticized the definition of “unreasonable” from the proceeding; the standard from 49 U.S.C. §24308(e)(2)(A) for how much of a negative impact on CSX and NS freight operations the new Amtrak trains can cause. He challenged the positions taken by both sides and called on them to come back with more evidence.
Given the newsworthy nature of Oberman’s remarks, we are presenting his opening verbatim, as found on the audio portion of the proceedings, and made available on the STB’s You Tube channel.
He began his address by saying: “We’ve had plenty of time during the course of this hearing to receive and weigh and think about what we’ve been hearing and, I think, as you might imagine, forming views and, and then reforming them, and changing them and listening to everything that we’ve heard. And I am going to make some observations, and requests and suggestions, but I want to emphasize at the outset that the Board has made no rulings … other than the evidentiary rulings we have made …, and is not making any rulings today.” He also said he was going to ask other Board members to weigh in with their own views, using the phrase “add or detract”; made famous by Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in 1863. He continued: “This is, as I think all have agreed, an unprecedented hearing. We’re implementing a statute which has never before been utilized and, I don’t know the long history of he ICC, but I’m told, in terms of hearings on the record, … it’s certainly been a long time … maybe never. So we are breaking some new ground here.”
He then addressed the issue of the public interest: “I also want to underscore that, while this proceeding has proceeded in the nature of a trial with formal sworn testimony, examination and cross-examination, as I have expressed and I think others have, too, … from the very beginning, that the Board has a strong duty to consider the public interest. And this is not like, in my view, simply private litigation between two parties. It is to a large degree, but it’s our duty, in my view, to watch out and protect the public interest. That is why I am going to make these observations… .”
He then went on to address what he considered major deficiencies in the hearing: “I think you can all tell from the questioning that has gone, really from Day One, that the Board members have queried about the exploration by the parties of the issues which we think we have to deal with and which we have observed may not have been addressed sufficiently by the parties to date. The statute we’re operating on says that the Board shall consider [emphasis in original], and that is very specific language, which differs from other language, whether adding passenger service ‘impair unreasonably freight transportation’ [quoted in original]. It also tells us to consider [emphasis again in original] whether Amtrak can attain a system-wide average speed of 60 miles an hour, about which there’s been virtually no testimony by anybody in this case so far; the 60-miles-an-hour part.”
Then he criticized both sides for taking inappropriate positions. He started by berating Amtrak. “Amtrak has taken in its pleadings and its evidence that, if we were to find that the railroads did not meet their burden of proof of showing that the service would cause unreasonable impairment, that that’s the end of the case and they simply could run their trains with no further conditions.” Then he leveled some words at CSX and NS: “The railroads, by contrast, and they say that in the face of evidence I think any reasonable observer would say of some impairment, if you add four trains to an existing line. The railroads, by contrast to that approach, have said, and I know they have tried to modify what’s been said in the papers, but we’ve all read the RTC studies and the briefs, and while there’s some back-and-forth, the overwhelming approach of the briefing and the RTC studies submitted to us by the railroads is that they have met their burden of proof because hey are entitled to have, if there is to be passenger service, no degradation. That term has been used, and we’ve been told repeatedly that the infrastructure projects recommended by the RTC modelers are necessary to ensure that freight service is equal to, or equivalent to the pre-passenger-train service. And I, for one, don’t read the statute as requiring no degradation or service that’s equal to had there never been passenger service. The statute talks about ‘unreasonable impairment.’ Presumably, the Congress expected there might be some impairment when they wrote that language. So I am concerned that the RTC modeling that has been supplied so far doesn’t meet the standards of the statute, and there’s been a great deal of discussion about other aspects of the RTC reports that have been submitted so far; particularly not only the ‘no degradation’ part, but modeling the addition of infrastructure that the Amtrak trains would run on a 95% on-time-performance. I know, and you’ve heard me question very carefully the witnesses, that there were efforts to walk that back, but I could also read the plain language of the opening RTC study, and it clearly said that … that was one of the requirements of the infrastructure.”
Beyond what we already reported, Oberman said much more. As the above-quoted portion of the transcript noted, he raised the issue of whether or not the start of the proposed service would “unreasonably impair” freight operations and called for more information on that point. He also criticized the parties for not providing information on how they would carry out another import requirement: that the trains run at an average speed of 60 mph, under §24308(e)(2)(A).
He also objected to the railroads’ attitudes about new infrastructure. He claimed that, when they are paying for the construction themselves, they attempt to solve the problem by other means, such as operational or technological changes. When a public entity is paying for the construction, though, they want to build new infrastructure without bothering to change their operations. He blasted he railroads for not considering any operational changes in their model, and added that the Board needs to know if operational changes can be used to minimize the cost to the taxpayers of building new infrastructure to accommodate the new service. He said that Congress didn’t limit the way “impairment” could be avoided, and speculated that operating changes could obviate the need for new infrastructure, but he could not tell.
Regarding the RTC model, Oberman complained that testimony and exhibits presented by the railroads’ modelers, Hannah Rosse (CSX) and Holly Sinkkanen (NS) failed to produce documentation that would settle the issue of the 1265 moves that Amtrak claimed occurred, but the railroads did not acknowledge. He complained that the results of field interviews were not presented or maintained, which meant that someone in his position could not rely on the data which was presented. On the other side, he noted that Amtrak had supported slightly more than $117 million in new infrastructure that had been endorsed by the FRA and the Gulf Coast Working Group, but witnesses did not back that situation up with facts.
Throughout the trial so far, RTC has been considered the “gold standard” for determining what needs to be done, so the existing freight service and new passenger service can both run on the same railroad. While much of the proceeding revolved around the actual modeling with RTC, Oberman said that he resisted the idea that it could be the “gold standard” under the circumstances. Nonetheless, he also excluded some of the testimony and exhibits proffered by Clayton Johanson of DB, and criticized the DB approach as not adequately addressing freight impairment.
Oberman wanted to know what benefit would be realized from each of the proposed infrastructure projects. Concerning the 2019 and 2039 modeling of the base cases for freight operations without the passenger trains added, he asked if the taxpayers should fund a guess about what freight traffic would be like in 20 years. He complained that the metrics presented did not disclose whether freight customers were benefiting or suffering, and how current or expected delays would affect their service.
Early in the trial, CSX lawyers Ray Atkins and Dan Donahoe objected to Oberman’s questions, claiming that he went far beyond the sort of questioning a judge is allowed to ask in a civil trial. Oberman stood his ground, distinguishing the present case from a conventional civil trail. The STB is an administrative agency composed of members and staff who are familiar with specialized subject matter and, as we reported previously, Oberman noted that. In addition, he stated that his job is to protect the public interest, while also protecting both freight and passenger rail operations. Early in his statement, he said: “It’s our duty, in my view, to watch out for and protect the public interest.”
Toward the end of his statement, Oberman reaffirmed that there is a huge public interest in the outcome of the case, and called for rules that would govern similar cases that will come up in the future. That applies to Amtrak, as well as to potential host railroads. He blasted the way both sides presented their cases, saying at one point: “Part of me wants to say that both sides should lose, but that’s impossible.”
We will all know next month how how seriously the parties will have taken Oberman’s invitation to bring more evidence to the Board’s attention, so its members will know more of what they need to know in order to make an appropriate decision. In the meantime, we will probably have more to say about the issues Oberman raised, including rules for litigating future cases and how future proceedings of this sort can be improved.
SPECIAL REPORT: Where The Trains Would Go In Mississippi
I traveled to the towns along the Mississippi Gulf Coast where the proposed trains would stop. This is my report to you about those towns and what they have to offer as destinations.
First, a few preliminary comments. The trip about which I am reporting was a side trip from New Orleans. It was a two-day journey; one that would be impossible without a motor vehicle available, since some of the prospective destinations have no public transportation of any kind. New Orleans environmental and transit advocate Alan S. Drake had the necessary vehicle, and he and I set out to explore the places where the trains would call.
This report will not discuss Mobile, the ultimate terminal for the service, for several reasons. Much of the political push for the trains comes from Mississippi, especially from Sen. Roger Wicker and many local officials in the Magnolia State. Much of that effort may be coming from the casinos in Biloxi, but support in the state for the new service is strong. In Alabama, including in Mobile, the opposition is equally strong. As a destination, though, Mobile has a lot to offer. It is a historic city, with museums, historic homes and commercial buildings, and plenty to do. At least that was the way it was when I was able to take a train there before Hurricane Katrina killed the prior service to Florida in 2005. There is controversy about where the station should be located. Amtrak wants it where it was before: downtown; a location that makes sense. Local officials want to locate it several miles away, which would subject Amtrak riders to the same drawback as bus passengers on Greyhound are now forced to experience. We will have more to report about Mobile in the future, but our focus now will be on Mississippi.
The Six Sisters
During the 1800s, the Mississippi Gulf Coast became a getaway destination for wealthy New Orleanians who wanted to escape the heat of summer in the city, as well as the diseases that ran rampant there at the time. The six towns along the Coast became known as the Six Sisters, and the list consisted of Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Mississippi City, Biloxi, Ocean Springs, and Pascagoula. There of those towns: Bay St. Louis, Biloxi, and Pascagoula, are slated to be future Amtrak stops. Gulfport, the other planned stop in the state, absorbed what was left of historic Mississipppi City (which was located about four miles east of Gulfport and once had its own station) in 1965. Pass Christian and Ocean Springs are not slated to be stops, but more about those places later.
So now it’s time to examine what those towns are like today; at least from the perspective of an experienced traveler making relatively-brief visits to all of them. The duration of each visit was measured in hours, since there were only two days available for the entire trip but, for most of the towns on the route, that was enough time to get the flavor of the towns. There were some surprises, including some disappointments, but each town is unique, each deserves to be mentioned. So we will start with Pascagoula, the easternmost town on the list, and head toward New Orleans.
Pascagoula’s most interesting attraction is located one mile from the train station. It is the La Pointe – Krebs House, the oldest house on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, built in 1757. The house itself is preserved unfurnished, to highlight its architecture. The museum next door is fascinating, and it details the period of French settlement in the region (the 1700s) and the later history of Pascagoula. It could be considered the single genuine tourist attraction in town.
The station itself is located in the tiny downtown area. It was built in 1904 and has definitely seen better days. It is now unused and run-down, but it could be renovated relatively easily. The town is not a busy one, although there are a few eateries within a block or two of the station. It would be possible to see the town after alighting from the morning train from New Orleans and before boarding the early-evening train to return, but it is difficult to see how the town would offer enough for a longer stay.
Biloxi has a number of casinos and, presumably, that is a significant reason why Sen. Roger Wicker is pushing so hard for the proposed service. The town has a lot more to offer, though, and it’s the biggest city on the proposed route. Biloxi has a number of museums, as well as historic neighborhoods and buildings. It is also the only place on the Mississippi Gulf Coast still served by Greyhound bus. Biloxi lies in the middle of the proposed route, and it contains the most attractions.
Amtrak does not have a “station” in Biloxi; there is only a short, rusting canopy left over from the previous service that Hurricane Katrina killed in 2005. It is located on Esters Boulevard, a desolate industrial street that has seen better days. The situation is not as bad as might appear at first glance, though. Plans call for the platform to be moved closer to the local bus terminal on the street, where local buses operated by the Coast Transit Authority (CTA; not to be confused with Chicago) take riders to points within Biloxi and to other towns including Gulfport and Ocean Springs.
The proposed station is a short walk from downtown attractions like the Mardi Gras Museum and the Saenger Theater. Other attractions are further east, while still others are located along the beachfront; now a highway along the white sand. They include the Biloxi Lighthouse and the Visitors Center, a 2011-vintage reconstruction of the 1848-vintage Dantzler House, which Katrina destroyed. It contains a small museum gallery about town history. For gamblers, Coast Transit offers a “Casino Hopper” route.
The Gulfport station is historic and houses the town history museum, which is open Thursdays through Saturdays. It was built in 1904 and is located where the historic New Orleans & Mobile route (where the trains would run; now CSX) crossed the Gulf & Ship Island RR, which ran to Jackson through Hattiesburg. The 1910-vintage G&SI office building is still standing, along with several other historic buildings downtown. The downtown area is small, though, and a day trip from New Orleans under the proposed schedule would allow enough time to get the flavor of the town. Coast Transit buses go from Biloxi to Gulfport, so it is possible to visit the town today, but the schedule requires an overnight stay.
Bay St. Louis
Bay St. Louis is a beach town, and most of the interesting sites are on Beach Boulevard and Main Street, on the way there. That center of town activity is located 7/10 of a mile from the station, which now hosts the town museum, with its three components: a small museum about the history of the town and the station, the Bay St. Louis Mardi Gras Museum, and a museum upstairs devoted to local artist Alice Moseley. The museums are open Tuesday through Saturday.
The station itself is interesting and represents an architectural style not normally found in the area. It was built in Mission style, opened for service in 1929, and is known locally as the “Depot.” Presumably the Mission style reflected a desire to promote joint service on the Louisville & Nashville Railroad (successor to the NO&M) and Seaboard Railroad to Jacksonville for connections further south in Florida, which ran daily until 1970 and tri-weekly in 1970-71 and again from 1993 until 2005.
There are no local buses in Bay St. Louis, but for visitors willing and able to do some walking, the proposed schedule would allow a day trip from new Orleans with about nine hours to visit the town.
Where The Train Will Not Go
In its final days in 1971, the pre-Amtrak service stopped at three places on the proposed route that are not in the plan to be served in the future: Waveland, Pass Christian, and Edgewater Park. Waveland is about four miles west of Bay St. Louis. Of all the towns on the Gulf Coast devastated by Katrina, it sustained some of the worst damage. The Ground Zero Museum in an old school building commemorating the storm, but it was closed when we attempted to visit. Pass Christian is one of the original “Six Sisters” and is located six miles east of Bay St. Louis. It still has some historic neighborhoods. Edgewater Park was located between Gulfport and Biloxi. Its claim to fame was the Edgewater Gulf Hotel, which was related to the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago, which made it a warm-weather vacation mecca for Chicagoans. Chicago rail historian and advocate F.K. Plous remembers vacationing there, including memories of the train station on the grounds of the hotel and the station agent, who was also the telegrapher. The residential subdivision four miles west of Biloxi is still standing and can be reached by a local bus, but the hotel lasted only from 1926 until 1970.
Curiously, there is a stop that is not slated to be on the restored route, but was one of the original ‘Six Sisters” and is still an active town. It is Ocean Springs, about four miles east of Biloxi. The station there is as well-preserved as those in Bay St. Louis and Gulfport, and it houses the visitors’ center and Chamber of Commerce offices. On the Saturday when I visited, there was a farmers’ market at the station, and the downtown area was active, with an artsy flavor. Bus service from Biloxi is limited; running every 90 minutes, but that would be enough for a side trip from Biloxi on the proposed train schedule; at least to see downtown Ocean Springs. The beach is 2½ miles away. It is possible to visit Ocean Springs, even today, using a bus from Biloxi on Coast Transit, but an overnight stay is required.
New Travel Opportunities
However, limited they may be, there is no question that the proposed service will open new travel opportunities for anyone who depends on public transportation, or for motorists who would prefer to ride a train rather than having to watch the highway at all times. Pascagoula and Bay St. Louis are currently not accessible without an automobile, and the new service would allow a day trip to those places for New Orleanians or a side trip for tourists visiting the Crescent City. The new train would also open Gulfport as a destination, because the current Greyhound schedule only allows four hours in Biloxi (there is also a 3:55 a.m. departure for New Orleans, but the bus station is not open at night). That schedule would not allow a visit to Gulfport or Ocean Springs without an overnight stay.
Even for a visit to Biloxi itself, the four mid-day hours available on the current bus schedule do not allow enough time to get the flavor of the town. There are a number of museums and historic areas worth visiting, and the proposed train schedule would allow about nine hours in town, without having to wait at a closed bus station in a desolate location for hours in the middle of the night.
It appears that the strongest argument for the new service on the ground of travel utility would be for residents of Mobile and the Mississippi Gulf Coast towns to visit New Orleans. The last time there were two trains along the historic NO&M route (on the L&N at that time) was back in the 1960s. There was one daily train on a comparable schedule until April 30, 1971, and again briefly in 1984-85 and 1996-97. Two daily trains for the folks living there, including one that would allow an 8½-hour visiting day in the Crescent City, would constitute access that only the oldest of them would remember.
As for using the new service as the first segment of a longer journey on Amtrak, that would be problematic. The morning train from Mobile would not arrive in New Orleans until 9:53, so it would not connect with the trains to New York or Los Angeles, which leave earlier. It would connect with Train 58 to Memphis and Chicago, which is currently scheduled to leave at 1:45 pm. The afternoon train to Mobile, proposed to leave at 5:31, would also not connect with the trains from New York or Los Angeles, which are scheduled to arrive after 9:00. It would connect with Train 59’s mid-afternoon arrival from Chicago, unless that train is significantly late. In that event, a chartered bus could take through-ticketed passengers to their Mississippi destinations or Mobile.
It would not be fair to say that the proposed new service would revolutionize non-automobile transportation in the region, because its effect would be limited. However, it would add to the list of places that tourists could visit without an automobile, and it would open access to New Orleans and its attractions to a region that has not had such access for more than 50 years; except for two brief periods of less than one year each. For that reason, even if no other, the proposed service would expand the nation’s mobility map for everybody; non-motorists and motorists alike.
Of course we do not know when, and even if, the proposed service will eventually run.