I called it the “Second Battle of Mobile.” Railway Age covered it extensively. It was the slugfest at the Surface Transportation Board (STB) between Amtrak on one side and CSX, NS and the Port of Mobile on the other, fighting about how much new infrastructure must be built before Amtrak can operate two daily round trips between the Crescent City and the historic city along the Alabama Gulf Coast, and how much that construction will cost. We covered every skirmish to the extent of at least 50,000 words from almost everybody at Railway Age, my contributions comprising more than half of that total.
Now that the war is over, and my writer’s cramp is finally starting to subside, peace talks behind the scenes have resulted in a treaty of a sort, a settlement agreement whose terms have finally been released. There is a way that you can learn more, though, and that is by referencing an application for federal funds to help pay for the costs. A local news website in the Magnolia State, Mississippi Today, found out about the grant application and ran a story. Beyond that, most people in the know had clammed up like the customers in a speakeasy (an illegal bar during the Prohibition era in the 1920s and early ‘30s, when alcoholic drinks were prohibited) during a police raid.
There are lots of people and organizations who want to see and ride the proposed trains, from Amtrak itself to elected officials like Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), to advocates for the riders and prospective riders themselves, who have been waiting for decades for the Amtrak route map to expand. It seemed reasonable to expect that the project’s many proponents would be jubilant and eager to tell the story of their victory. Yet, some of the project’s biggest supporters had been keeping their mouths shut, for whatever reason.
Knox Ross, Chair of the Southern Rail Commission (SRC), a quasi-official advocacy group led by officials from the three states where the trains would run, campaigned vigorously for the new service. For this story, he told Railway Age that he is looking forward to it, but gave no further details for the record. The SRC is the grant recipient for the infrastructure projects.
On Dec. 9, John Sharp reported the settlement in the Mobile Press Register without much information: “Amtrak’s return to the Gulf Coast will come in 2023, but few details are being disclosed about last month’s settlement in a case before a federal agency that could have national implications over how passenger rail is conducted along freight lines.” Sharp also reported on his interview with Amtrak’s Marc Magliari: “‘We have an agreement in place with the other parties involved in bringing service to the Gulf Coast and all around the country people are saying they want Amtrak service, now that there is a federal partner to help in ways that was never here before to make some of this happen,’ said Marc Magliari, spokesman with Amtrak, who declined to disclose additional details.” My initial interview with Magliari was cordial, but yielded no information beyond what Sharp reported .
Magliari had gone to great lengths to promote the service while the matter was pending at the STB, from sponsoring events in Bay St. Louis and Pascagoula, Miss,. (two places which are only accessible by automobile until the trains start running) during the hearings, to giving interviews (including to this writer) from the site in downtown Mobile where Amtrak wants to put the station and a layup track, and where it now appears the station will actually be located. Yet, he initially had no comment for the record and only suggested a request to Amtrak under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which I made right away (see below).
What few details I had about the settlement came from reports by Sara DiNatale, who covers the Gulf Coast for Mississippi Today, a non-profit website. On Nov. 22, she reported the settlement itself: “A joint statement from all parties—Amtrak, CSX, Norfolk Southern and the Port of Mobile—says they ‘collectively reached an agreement’ that supports freight trains and passenger trains running in the Gulf Coast Corridor.’” She also reported that the settlement agreement had been filed Nov. 21.
On Dec. 16, DiNatale reported on some substantive information concerning the grant request filed pursuant to the settlement agreement in a story headlined “Details emerge over Gulf Coast Amtrak route from Mobile to New Orleans, as former enemies become funding partners.” Her report began: “As Amtrak plans for a 2023 start date, the freight companies and Alabama port that once said passenger rail’s return to the Mississippi Gulf Coast could be detrimental to business are now pledging millions of dollars in improvements to the tracks between Mobile and New Orleans.” According to DiNatale’s report, the SRC’s grant request calls for $179 million from the feds, with $44 million from other sources as matching funds, totaling $223 million for twelve projects, roughly the geometric mean between the FRA’s $118 million estimate and CSX’s $440 million request.
DiNatale also reported that CSX would pay for a station track in downtown Mobile, and that funding sources include the State of Mississippi ($14 million), CSX ($9.9 million), the State of Louisiana ($9 million), Amtrak ($6 million), the Port of Pascagoula ($2 million), and the Port of Mobile ($750,000). The Port of Mobile had fought vigorously against the proposed service and had received permission from the STB to intervene as a party, joining CSX and NS in opposition to Amtrak.
Nobody Else Was Talking
My efforts to glean further details initially got nowhere. STB spokesperson Michael Booth told Railway Age that the document filed by the parties indicated that a settlement had been reached, but did not include details. He said the parties had done what the Board required and expressed the hope that the settlement resolves the matter, but he had no further details to disclose.
My inquiries to local media were not fruitful, either. The websites of the Sun-Herald, the daily paper that serves Biloxi and Gulfport, and the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, which covers state news, did not yield any substantive stories. A check with www.al.com, affiliated with the Press Register in Mobile, found references to John Sharp’s reporting, but did not contain substantive details. Efforts to contact Mississippi Public Broadcasting and Alabama Public Radio also failed to bring any more information to light.
As Magliari advised, I filed a request with Amtrak for the grant document under the FOIA. It was numbered 23-FOI-00068, the 68th request for next year. The automated reply from Amtrak acknowledged that I had a filed a “media request” and waived any fee, but also said that I would be furnished with the requested document on Jan. 19, 2023—more than 30 days after the request was filed. But the next day, the requested documents appeared on the FOIA page on the Amtrak website.
It seemed strange that the war was reported so extensively, but there was so little available word about the peace. Apologies to Tolstoy.
David Peter Alan is one of America’s most experienced transit users and advocates, having ridden every rail transit line in the U.S., and most Canadian systems. He has also ridden the entire Amtrak network and most of the routes on VIA Rail. His advocacy on the national scene focuses on the Rail Users’ Network (RUN), where he has been a Board member since 2005. Locally in New Jersey, he served as Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition for 21 years, and remains a member. He is also a member of NJ Transit’s Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee (SCDRTAC). When not writing or traveling, he practices law in the fields of Intellectual Property (Patents, Trademarks and Copyright) and business law. The opinions expressed here are his own.