USDOT Weighs In on Gulf Coast Service

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
More than 300 people rode Amtrak’s Gulf Coast Inspection Train (pictured) from New Orleans to Jacksonville, Fla., in February 2016, as part of an ongoing effort to restore passenger rail service along the Gulf Coast, which was disrupted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and never resumed. (Marc Glucksman, Amtrak)

More than 300 people rode Amtrak’s Gulf Coast Inspection Train (pictured) from New Orleans to Jacksonville, Fla., in February 2016, as part of an ongoing effort to restore passenger rail service along the Gulf Coast, which was disrupted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and never resumed. (Marc Glucksman, Amtrak)

The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) “stands ready” to work with Amtrak, CSX, Norfolk Southern (NS) and other stakeholders to restore “long overdue” passenger service between New Orleans and Mobile, it wrote in a recent Surface Transportation Board (STB) filing.

In March, Amtrak sought an order from STB, requiring CSX and NS to permit access for twice-daily round-trip service, starting on or about Jan. 1, 2022—a move that the two Class I railroads called “unripe” in an April 5 motion-to-dismiss filing with the STB.

Late last month, Amtrak asked the STB to deny the railroads’ motion.

And now USDOT has entered the filing fray (download below). Why? 

FRA has worked closely with Amtrak, CSX, Norfolk Southern and other stakeholders for several years to make the restoration of Gulf Coast service a reality,” wrote John E. Putnam, Acting General Counsel. “Unfortunately, despite an extended period of examination and the investment of significant funds, Amtrak has been unable to obtain the agreement of the host freight railroads, and there is no clear or imminent path to the restoration of this service, absent the Board’s [STB’s] intercession. We therefore urge the Board to act expeditiously on Amtrak’s application … relating to the restoration of passenger rail service between New Orleans, Louisiana and Mobile, Alabama.

“The Department’s mission is to foster ‘transportation policies and programs that contribute to providing fast, safe, efficient and convenient transportation’ for the Nation.”

The FRA got involved in 2015, “when the Secretary of Transportation, under Congressional direction, convened the Gulf Coast Working Group (GCWG),” according to the USDOT filing. The group was charged with evaluating service options and identifying capital improvement requirements. Members included FRA; Amtrak; state Departments of Transportation in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida; municipalities and communities along the route; regional transportation planning organizations; metropolitan planning organizations; the Southern Rail Commission; and rail carriers whose facilities would be used for the service (CSX, NS and Florida DOT/SunRail).

The effort “was not brought to a successful resolution, despite FRA’s expenditure of approximately $700,000 in Federal funding, through both grant and contract awards (including a $171,275 contract award directly to CSX for operations simulation work),” according to the USDOT filing, which noted that FRA, Amtrak and other Working Group members were unable to obtain all the railroad data and analysis necessary for a comprehensive examination. The final GCWG report “reflected major disagreements among some members about the level of capital investment needed to restore the Gulf Coast service,” the USDOT wrote. “FRA arrived at an estimated cost of $118 million, while CSX estimated that $2.3 billion in capital improvements would be required.”

In early 2020, Amtrak, CSX and NS began a new study using Berkeley Simulation Software’s Rail Traffic Controller modeling program to determine passenger rail’s impact to existing freight traffic.

The move “encouraged” FRA, which participated in and funded the study through a $250,852 grant to Amtrak, USDOT noted in its filing.

But this study, too, “failed to yield a consensus agreement on the sharing of relevant data inputs and model outputs, let alone the necessary scope of capital improvements. FRA and Amtrak have repeatedly attempted to address concerns with CSX and Norfolk Southern about the conduct and completion of the study, but were unable to do so by the study’s originally scheduled end date in January 2021.”

According to USDOT, “FRA remains concerned that it has been unable to obtain access to all the data and analysis necessary for a proper review of the issues involved in restoring service. Furthermore, at present, there does not appear to be any clear path forward for resolving these questions, absent the Board’s involvement.”

USDOT also pointed out that FRA has made “several significant” grants, totaling $47.6 million (together with $52.3 million in non-federal matches) to support service restoration efforts.   

Amtrak released a statement on May 10, noting that “FRA’s letter speaks for itself. Amtrak looks forward to the STB rendering a speedy decision.”

Categories: Class I, Freight, Intercity, M/W, News, Passenger, Regulatory Tags: , , , , , , , , ,