Gulf Coast Battle: CSX Seeks Shipper Support; Amtrak Advocates Respond (UPDATED)

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
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As the battle between Amtrak and potential host freight railroads CSX and NS over proposed passenger trains between New Orleans and Mobile heats up, CSX has turned up the heat another notch.

In a memo sent to shippers on Feb. 4 (published below), CSX President and CEO Jim Foote urged them to support the railroad in its efforts to stop the proposed Amtrak service, or at least stall it until unless the capacity improvements CSX wants are made. The message went out just before the Feb. 7 deadline for the public to register with the Surface Transportation Board to comment at a Feb. 15 STB hearing on the Amtrak proposal. Not to be outdone, Amtrak issued its own strongly worded response, as did advocates. The hearing will likely expand to two days, concluding on Feb. 16. 

Foote’s memo, which was not released publicly, began: “First, I’d like to thank you for being a loyal CSX customer. I’m reaching out today to let you know of an issue we’re facing in the Gulf Coast that could have implications for freight railroads across the entire U.S. As you may be aware, there is an effort by Amtrak to force new service on CSX and NS between New Orleans and Mobile without any consideration for the negative impact on freight service or securing the infrastructure that would be required to accommodate that new service.” He then said, “CSX supports passenger rail,” but added, “We’re currently in litigation with Amtrak to make sure that this new service is not irresponsibly forced through, and could use your help ahead of a key Feb. 15 hearing before the STB.” 

At issue is how much infrastructure will be needed to accommodate two daily passenger round trips between the Crescent City and Mobile, without impairing existing freight service along the Gulf Coast. Foote’s letter said: “An RTC (Rail Traffic Controller) study was completed last year [that] showed significant impairment to freight service if no infrastructure improvements are made. Yet Amtrak proposes to begin this service without implementing those improvements.” (Bold emphasis original.)

To highlight the national importance of the current battle before the STB, Foote urged: “We ask you to join us in signing a petition to let the STB know that Amtrak’s current position is untenable and that the STB’s decision will have broad implications impacting service to freight rail customers across the U.S. … If this is allowed to happen on the Gulf Coast, Amtrak could deploy this strategy wherever you ship your goods.” 

Late on Feb. 4, Amtrak responded with this strongly worded statement: “Desperate attempts by CSX to scare their already-dissatisfied customer base is the same tactic they’ve used before: misleading their shippers, shareholders and the public. It is the kind of tactic used when the facts and the law are not on their side. The upcoming STB hearing will show that Amtrak has the right to use these tracks and the Gulf Coast community deserves to have passenger rail.”

It was reported on Feb. 7, the last day to register, that more than a dozen shippers and associations accommodated CSX’s request, although many sent form letters. 

While those responses came from around the country, so did statements from passenger rail advocates in the region and elsewhere in the nation, concerned about the hard-line attitude that CSX has taken and the potential negative effect on future plans to start new passenger trains under Amtrak’s “Connect U.S.” plan for more state-supported trains, and corridors planned for 2035 and in New England, where CSX is buying Class II Pan Am Rail. There are initiatives in four New England states—Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine—to expand local or regional passenger service. Some state transportation departments like MassDOT are pushing for new lines, as are local advocates like the Maine Rail Group. Nationally, that includes state-supported lines and new long-distance routes. Other advocates want new long-distance routes, even though the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA) does not call for them, and none are included in Amtrak’s Connect U.S. plan for 2035.

The Rail Users’ Network (RUN), which advocates for expansion of Amtrak and local passenger rail services, expressed its concern in a statement by Chair Richard Rudolph, who noted: “CSX is putting pressure on its shippers to testify at the hearing. If CSX is anti-passenger rail, it should not be allowed to purchase Pan Am Railway in New England, which stands to gain additional passenger rail service in the future. We predict that if opposition is the policy in New Orleans, then it will be the policy in New England, as soon as a merger is approved.” Rudolph lives in Maine and advocates for more local lines in the region, as well as nationally through RUN.

The Rail Passengers’ Association (RPA) issued a statement that said, “There is little compelling evidence that the new service would ‘unreasonably impair’ freight operations in the region, and we therefore ask the [STB] not only to order restoration of this critical transportation corridor—an economic engine for the Gulf Coast region—but to set an important precedent vindicating Congress’ intent in creating and continually reauthorizing the legislation governing Amtrak.”

Independent advocates are complaining, too. Robert S. Ash, a Chicagoland resident and consultant whose career in materials management and procurement began in 1971 and included multi-year stints at Amtrak and Metra, said this about the CSX memo in a blog post: “A real ‘can do’ attitude. Small ball stuff. Wonder why not much gets done on the railroad anymore. The country moves on. CSX certainly has the right to examine the impact, but writing customers? Really cheezie [sic] in my opinion. Could CSX’s service get much worse?”

It is unclear just how much weight the comments from CSX’s shippers might have. The STB has ruled that information about the railroad’s freight movements is confidential, so shippers have no way of knowing precisely what effect the proposed passenger service would have on their shipping schedules, because that information is not available to them. 

Still, some CSX shippers around the nation have expressed concern about how the Mobile trains would affect their service if the passenger service is established. Meanwhile, advocates from around the country are also preparing to defend expansion of the Amtrak network in the Gulf Coast and generally, in light of the stand that CSX and NS are taking. This could very well be the test case for the future viability of Amtrak’s 2035 plan and for expansion of passenger services under state plans, too.

NS is fighting the current “Battle of Mobile” almost as hard as CSX, even though its track comprises only about five miles (within New Orleans) of the 145-mile line. That strong stand has made advocates skeptical of claims by the railroads that they “support passenger rail” as Foote claimed in his memo. At this writing, more than 100 persons and organizations have registered to make statements at the hearing, which will ensure a two-day affair. We will soon know what they will have to say, and later, what the parties say during the next hearing, scheduled for March 9 and 10. Sometime later this year, we will also know if, and on what, the STB rules.

Additional Railway Age coverage:

STB Sets Gulf Coast Hearing, But Amtrak Loses Pre-Hearing Round

Amtrak Playing Hardball With CSX, NS on Gulf Coast Service (Updated)

New Orleans-Mobile Amtrak Service in Development

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