Round 6: The Port Raises a Statutory Issue

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
image description

At this writing, Amtrak is preparing to present its case to the Surface Transportation Board (STB) disputing the amount of new infrastructure that potential host railroads CSX and Norfolk Southern claim must be built before passenger trains can again run between New Orleans and Mobile. As previously reported, CSX and NS have made their case, and their number can be pegged at $524 million.

On April 17, it was the Port of Mobile’s turn to be heard. The Port had asked to intervene in the case, and the Board granted the request, which means that it had become a party to the action. The Port is a state-owned business enterprise that consists of the Alabama State Docks and the Terminal Railway Alabama State Docks (TASD), the switching and terminal railroad that connects them and interchanges freight with other railroads and local customers in the city. The Port has argued that its interests in the matter are not the same as those of CSX and NS. The Board agreed.

At the outset of the session, the Port raised an issue about how the statute should be construed. The relevant provision, 49 USC Sec. 24308(e)(1) says in pertinent part: “When a rail carrier does not agree to provide, or allow Amtrak to provide, for operation of additional trains over a rail line of the carrier, Amtrak may apply to the Board for an order requiring the carrier to provide for the operation of the requested trains.” The Port raised the issue of meaning of the phrase “a rail line of the carrier” in that provision, questioning whether TASD accedes to CSX’s rights and responsibilities in a case such as the present one.

The Board did not rule on the question, but Oberman noted that “TASD is a more-efficient proxy for CSX” under some circumstances, so the issue would be whether TASD could stand in CSX’s shoes. It is unclear whether there will be any further action on that issue. If there is, though, the Board’s ruling could provide yet another ground for appeal and likely delay.

The Port then presented two witnesses; both senior managers. John C. Driscoll, Chief of the Alabama State Port Authority, led off. He described the Port’s operations and said that it serves five Class I railroads and four smaller ones, including TASD, a Port subsidiary, operating 75 miles of track for local freight customers and interchange with other railroads, including CSX and NS.

Driscoll made the same argument as CSX and NS: that the Port would not object to Amtrak trains specifically, but there must not be any negative impacts to their freight operations. He did say that Amtrak did not appear very interested in making a deal to get the trains going, though. He also said that he expects major growth in the Port’s business of 50% over the next five years. 

Rob Golden, General Manager of TASD, was next. He had extensive railroad dispatching and operations experience at CSX in the Midwest, and had been a superintendent in Atlanta. Golden described TASD’s operations at several yards and interchange points in detail. He also expressed concern about TASD’s operations between its discontinuous yards with Amtrak trains serving the city, because the Port’s trains use CSX to get between those yards. He claimed that the current operation would be “problematic” with Amtrak, and added that Amtrak could not offer any infrastructure that would alleviate the problem.

Oberman asked Golden if he thought that running shorter trains would relieve the constraint on CSX, but Golden replied that running shorter trains requires more moves, which is also problematic.

The issues of yard and station locations also came up. There are several yards north of downtown Mobile, most of which are owned by the different railroads. NS owns Seibert Yard, which is located between two separate yards that the Port owns. Interchange Yard is west of Sibert, and Riverfront Yard is east of it. Golden noted that the separate locations of the Port’s yards could make operations with CSX difficult. Oberman suggested that establishing operating windows with CSX could make it easier for TASD to get between the yards, and then went on to suggest that the Port could establish windows with both CSX and Amtrak.

Throughout the pendency of this matter, one of the most controversial issues has been a station location in Mobile. Until the previous service ended in 2005, it was downtown, at the former L&N Building (Louisville & Nashville Railroad, absorbed by CSX). Mobile officials want to put it at the Brookley airport, several miles from downtown and currently unserved by local buses. The Greyhound bus location is also several miles from downtown and has local buses for only some of Greyhound’s schedules. 

Amtrak is pushing for the former downtown location (at Government Street, see diagram below), and we have reported on Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari’s arguments for putting it there. Perhaps most important, it would be close to historic downtown attractions, the convention center and the cruise ship terminal. 

Golden mentioned in his testimony that the old station site was about “50 car lengths” or 2,500 feet south of the interchange point. That location seems reasonable, as long as it’s feasible to build a station track and either store the passenger consist on it or build a layup track nearby. A 3,000-foot station track has been modeled, but that seems vastly disproportionate to the need in the present case. It is expected that the Amtrak trains will be short, three or four cars and a single unit. Even double-ended push-pull operation would not add much overall length to the consists.

It may not be terribly difficult to find a place for a track that could accommodate such short trains. While it appears relatively easy and inexpensive to build a station/layup track, it might also be feasible for Amtrak to rent one of the “roll-on roll-off” tracks in the North Yard of Riverfront Yard. Those tracks are about 700 feet long, according to Golden, which would be long enough to store the regular consist. With reliable passenger schedules, it should also be possible for Amtrak to negotiate operating windows with the Port and CSX (at least to the extent that CSX allows Amtrak to keep its schedules reliably). There would be a drawback, though: It would take time for the train to deadhead to the site.

At the end of the day, Oberman remarked for the record: “The people who have the burden of proof are done.” So, at this writing, Amtrak is having its say, but with a break of almost three weeks before the next hearing day. In the meantime, we will report soon on the towns in Mississippi where the proposed trains would stop.

Tags: , , , , , , ,