The next step in the Surface Transportation Board-instituted proceeding on Amtrak’s application to operate Gulf Coast service will be, as scheduled, an evidentiary hearing, according to STB’s April 1 decision denying a motion for mediation.
On March 25, Norfolk Southern (NS), CSX, and the Alabama State Port Authority and its Terminal Railway Alabama State Docks division (collectively, the Port) requested STB-sponsored mediation as a 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.” Amtrak opposed the move in March 28 filing with the STB, stating that mediation is “yet another attempt to further delay a process that has already been delayed far too long.”
“The Board favors the resolution of disputes through mediation in lieu of formal Board proceedings whenever possible,” STB wrote in its April 1 decision (download below). “The Board may order the parties to a proceeding to engage in Board-sponsored mediation at the written request of one or more parties, or by its own order. … However, the Board may deny mediation where one or more parties to the underlying dispute do not consent to mediation. …
“Here, it is unfortunate that the petitioning parties formally petitioned for mediation only after this matter had been pending for more than a year and on the eve of the evidentiary hearing [that will run April 4-5, and continue on April 6 and 8, if necessary]. It is equally unfortunate that Amtrak has now, and in the past, rejected the idea of Board-sponsored mediation. Had all parties been willing to enter into mediation, the Board might have been inclined to more favorably consider the request, even at this late date, since this matter appears to be one that could have been resolved through mediation, had the railroads, Amtrak, and the Port been willing to moderate their positions. However, because the evidentiary hearing is scheduled to begin in a few days, on April 4, and because not all parties favor mediation at this time, the Board will deny the motion to avoid further delay. At the conclusion of the evidentiary hearing, if it appears that Board-sponsored mediation could be helpful in resolving any remaining issues in this matter, any party may request Board-ordered mediation at that time.”
In a April 1 statement to Railway Age, CSX said it “understands the STB’s decision to forego Board-sponsored mediation at this time. We also recognize the STB’s openness to the potential of such mediation after the [evidentiary] hearing. We look forward to presenting our evidence at the hearing.” NS told the magazine: “We don’t have a comment to provide on this decision.”
Other than “thanking the Board for its ruling,” Amtrak did not have further comment for Railway Age.
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. The evidentiary hearing is next. Stay tuned.