Surface Transportation Board-sponsored mediation is the best means “to facilitate a prompt and orderly commencement of Gulf Coast passenger service while protecting the customers and shipping partners that rely on quality freight rail service,” according to Norfolk Southern (NS), CSX, and the Alabama State Port Authority and its Terminal Railway Alabama State Docks division (collectively, the Port). While Amtrak opposes their recent joint motion for mediation, all parties agree that an “amicable resolution” may be possible.
Amtrak in March 2021 submitted an application under 49 U.S.C. § 24308(e), seeking an STB order requiring host freight railroads CSX and NS to allow intercity passenger trains to operate over their lines from New Orleans to 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 instituted a proceeding on the proposed service in August 2021. And on Feb. 15-16, 2022, it held a public hearing. Sixty-two persons made statements, followed by the railroads, the Port and Amtrak, with the “battle line … drawn roughly 50/50 between those who want to see passenger trains between the Crescent City and Mobile and those who don’t,” according to Railway Age Contributing Editor David Peter Alan’s Feb. 17 report.
During the hearing, “all the parties expressed a willingness to engage in discussions to resolve the issues,” CSX, NS and the Port wrote in their March 25 filing with the STB (download below). “[STB] Chairman [Martin J.] Oberman also articulated the Board’s openness to facilitating mediation.”
Roughly a week before a scheduled evidentiary hearing (starting April 4), the Class I’s and the Port asked STB to order mediation. Noting their continued belief “that an amicable resolution is possible,” they reported they are “confident that with the help of a Board-appointed mediator, and with technical support from Board staff on the RTC [Rail Traffic Controller] model [to determine what infrastructure is needed to accommodate passenger service], the parties can negotiate a settlement of this dispute collectively. A Board-selected mediator, guided by experienced Board staff, may succeed where previous efforts have not.”
In a filing dated March 28 (download below), Amtrak said it “believes an amicable resolution of this matter may be possible,” but the move to mediation is “yet another attempt to further delay a process that has already been delayed far too long. At the very least the motion is premature in as much as it presumes that the building of infrastructure is necessary for Amtrak to resume the Gulf Coast service, and therefore necessary for the parties to negotiate over. Accordingly, should the Board not deny the motion outright, it should hold the motion until after the conclusion of the [April 4-5] evidentiary hearing.”
The passenger railroad explained that its position throughout the “years-long effort to restore intercity passenger service to the people of the Gulf Coast has been consistent. Amtrak is committed to restoring the Gulf Coast service while working with its host railroad partners and the Port over time to address the need for capital improvements to enhance safety, improve reliability, and reduce trip times. Amtrak has engaged and continues to engage with its host railroad partners and with the Port on whether the parties can reach a negotiated resolution consistent with these goals. However, the parties remain very far apart. Indeed, the host railroads and the Port have not even agreed among themselves on the infrastructure they consider necessary to withdraw their opposition to restoring the Gulf Coast service. And although Amtrak appreciates that CSX and NS have reduced the demand they made in 2017 that Amtrak must make $1.1 billion in capital improvements before even a single Gulf Coast service train can run, the parties are not in the same ballpark with respect to the magnitude and timing of what is required for service to be restored. Accordingly, while Amtrak remains open to attempting to reach a negotiated resolution, Amtrak believes that the appropriate path forward is to continue direct discussions between the parties while proceeding to a prompt resolution of this proceeding.”
The next move: STB’s. Stay tuned.