Gulf Coast service would “impair unreasonably” freight operations unless Amtrak agrees to fund improvements necessary to support its proposal, host freight railroads CSX and Norfolk Southern wrote in a joint filing to the Surface Transportation Board (STB) on Nov. 3.
A 2021 Gulf Coast Rail Traffic Controller (RTC) model and report completed by HNTB Corp. and R.L. Banks & Associates, Inc., for CSX and NS “definitively demonstrates that Amtrak’s proposal to introduce passenger rail with no infrastructure improvements would result in immediate, substantial and unreasonable impairment to freight service. Accordingly, Amtrak’s petition to request service on those terms should be denied,” they wrote in their STB filing (download below).
In March, Amtrak submitted an application under 49 U.S.C. § 24308(e), seeking an STB order requiring CSX and NS to allow Amtrak to operate intercity passenger trains over their lines between New Orleans, La., and Mobile, Ala. This resulted in months of clashes via STB filings between Amtrak and the freight railroads (as well as years of clashes before STB involvement). STB decided in August to institute a proceeding on the proposed service, concluding the matter was “ripe for adjudication.” On Oct. 15, STB provided a revised procedural schedule (download below):
• CSX and NS opening evidence: Nov. 3, 2021
• Amtrak reply evidence: Dec. 3, 2021
• CSX and NS rebuttal evidence: Dec. 23, 2021
• Proposal(s) on hearing format: Dec. 30, 2021
CSX and NS noted in their joint Nov. 3 filing: “In the event the Board does not dismiss or deny Amtrak’s request, at a minimum, the Board should impose conditions requiring Amtrak to fund, build and install the additional infrastructure required to prevent a near catastrophic meltdown of freight operations—and to do so in a manner that does not unreasonably interfere with freight operations.”
The railroads identified 14 infrastructure projects “that could permit Amtrak to run its four daily trains between Mobile and New Orleans without impeding existing or future freight traffic,” and would ensure “that passenger service will achieve a 95% OTP rate.” The estimated cost: $405 million-$440 million.
The projects involve a total of 122,000 feet of additional track, including “the extension of sidings at Harbin, St. Elmo, and Brookley; adding segments of double tracking at Michoud, Claiborne, Beauvoir, and Mobile; a new 14,000 foot bypass at Gentilly; a new 12,100 foot siding at Fountainbleau; and 3,200 feet of new track at the Mobile station.” Also included are “new powered turnouts at Theodore and Bayou Cassotte.” The projects differ from previous infrastructure proposals, the railroads wrote, because they “reflect the particular schedule and route that Amtrak has proposed.”
In a Nov. 5 statement to Railway Age, Amtrak said: “We will review the joint filing by CSX and NS, then respond accordingly.” The railroad also said that it hopes to commence Gulf Coast service “as soon as possible.” It had originally intended a start date on or around Jan. 1, 2022.
While NS on Nov. 5 told Railway Age that it “did not have any further comment beyond what was in the filing,” CSX on Nov. 4 issued the following statement:
“CSX is not opposed to the introduction of new passenger service as long as the new service does not negatively impact freight.
“It has been a standard practice in the industry to complete a Rail Traffic Controller (RTC) model to determine the impacts of new passenger service and what infrastructure would be required to accommodate the service. Amtrak abandoned a nearly completed study that would have established this for the proposed new Gulf Coast service.
“CSX and NS worked with a third-party to complete the 2021 Gulf Coast RTC report using the same inputs that were used in the study that was abandoned by Amtrak.
“The study highlights the unique and challenging features of the New Orleans to Mobile corridor including 150 miles of single-tracked main line, 13 moveable bridges that open on demand to maritime traffic, 160 grade crossings through communities (1.1 crossings per mile average), and four busy ports and freight gateways.
“The 2021 Gulf Coast RTC study shows that if no infrastructure improvements are made (there are 14 such projects identified in the report) the new passenger service would cause significant impairment to freight service and have negative community impacts, most notably with a substantial increase in blocked crossings.
“In our filings to the STB, CSX and NS request that Amtrak’s appeal to bring its proposed passenger service without any infrastructure improvements be denied due to the unreasonable impairment of freight transportation and negative impacts on the community.
“Any STB grant for Amtrak to access the Gulf Coast corridor, should at a minimum be conditioned on Amtrak funding the 14 infrastructure projects recommended in the 2021 Gulf Coast RTC report.”
Also on Nov. 3, the Alabama State Port Authority and its rail common carrier operating division, Terminal Railway Alabama State Docks, submitted an STB filing (download below), stating that Gulf Coast service would “impair” their provision of freight transportation. They, too, offered recommendations for infrastructure improvements and mitigation efforts if passenger trains were to operate.
Among them: locating Amtrak’s depot at Brookley Aeroplex, a large airfield and industrial complex located a few miles southwest of downtown Mobile; constructing a flyover track connecting Interchange Yard and Riverfront Yard; constructing an extension track along Bob Hope Bridge; and improving the Virginia Street Lead, by expanding it to two inbound-outbound tracks and modifying the placement of turnouts.