Work is still under way on settlement terms and conditions for launching Amtrak’s Gulf Coast service between New Orleans and Mobile, “America’s Railroad,” CSX, Norfolk Southern (NS), and Alabama State Port Authority and its rail common-carrier operating division, Terminal Railway Alabama State Docks, told the Surface Transportation Board (STB) in a Feb. 1 filing, which asked the Board to continue holding the case in abeyance, until at least May 1.
Editor’s Note: Since that filing, the STB has decided to go forward with a Feb. 14 hearing to get more details and the Southern Rail Commission has submitted comments. Contributing Editor Davis Peter Alan comments on Mobile City Council pushback. Read on.
Amtrak, CSX, NS, and Alabama State Port Authority and Terminal Railway Alabama State Docks provided a joint status report (download below) in accordance with STB orders, so the federal agency could “reasonably understand” the remaining steps necessary to fully implement their settlement agreement and ultimately restore passenger service in a region that has not had access to it since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The parties’ reached the agreement in November 2022.
The STB last month announced that it would require the parties’ Feb. 1 report to include more information on their settlement agreement and that it was scheduling a Feb 14 hearing for the parties to report on the status “more fully.”
“Because more than 14 months have elapsed since the announcement of a settlement, the February report must include detailed information regarding the status of settlement implementation and describe any issues that remain outstanding,” the STB said in January. If the STB deems the status report “sufficient,” it said the hearing may be cancelled.
The hearing will go forward. The STB on Feb. 6 issued a decision that it will conduct a hearing “to obtain information about the status of the implementation of the settlement agreement.” The hearing will take place Feb. 14, at 11:00 a.m. EST, at the STB’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., with participation limited to the parties’ counsel and a representative from Mobile, if Mobile chooses to participate. It will also be available for public viewing on YouTube; however, the STB noted that “[i]f at any point it is necessary to discuss confidential and/or highly confidential information, all those not authorized to view the confidential and/or highly confidential information will be excused from the hearing room.”
William S. Stimpson, the Mayor of Mobile, has declined the STB’s invitation to participate. In a Feb. 8 filing, he reported that the city and Amtrak are involved in “forward moving negotiations on a weekly basis,” and “[o]nce we have reached an agreement, we will be more than happy to provide the board with a status update.”
In their Feb. 1 filing, Amtrak, CSX, NS, and Alabama State Port Authority and Terminal Railway Alabama State Docks wrote that they “appreciate the Board’s continued interest and understand there is great public interest in the resolution of this matter.” To that end, they said, they “have been working, and continue to work diligently, cooperatively, and in good faith toward implementation of all terms and conditions of the settlement agreement.” While specific terms and conditions of the agreement remain confidential, the parties noted, one of the “major components” was their cooperation on the preparation and Dec. 1, 2022, submission of an application by the Southern Rail Commission and Amtrak for a $178 million grant under the Federal Railroad Administration’s Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements Program, which was awarded to Amtrak in full in September 2023.
The grant will fund several track and signal-related improvements, grade crossing upgrades, and station improvements to add two new daily round-trips between New Orleans and Mobile. While expanding passenger service, the project will also help maintain reliable freight operations and benefit the Port of Mobile.
The parties, in their Feb. 1 filing, referred to the FRA grant application for specifics. Railway Age’s Contributing Editor David Peter Alan reported on the application details when it was released in December 2022. Read: “Amtrak Posts Gulf Coast Grant Application for Public Viewing.”
The parties told STB that since the grant award, “Amtrak has been working closely and cooperatively with the FRA to finalize the grant agreement.” They said Amtrak received the “CRISI grant terms and conditions from the FRA in December 2023 and Amtrak understands that obligation of the CRISI funds by the FRA is progressing well.” They noted that grant agreements “are complex and sometimes can take six months or more to complete.” Amtrak, they said, “is giving this grant agreement its highest priority and is optimistic that it can be completed within the next few months.”
Once a preliminary grant agreement is reached, all parties “must agree to the various obligations contained within it before it can be finalized,” they explained to the STB. A dismissal of the STB proceedings on Gulf Coast Service “is not appropriate until funding for the agreed-upon infrastructure projects is formally secured under an executed funding agreement,” the parties said.
Additionally, Amtrak, CSX, NS, and Alabama State Port Authority and Terminal Railway Alabama State Docks told the STB that the Mobile Station Track Project must be completed prior to the resumption of the Gulf Coast service on an interim schedule. That entails installing approximately 3,000 feet of layover track at, and proximate to, the site of the former train station site in downtown Mobile, adjacent to existing CSX right-of-way. According to the parties, Amtrak will fund this project separately from the CRISI-supported projects; Amtrak and CSX, they said, have already executed a design and construction agreement and have been “working diligently and cooperatively on all design and pre-construction activities over the last few months.”
The Mobile Station Track Project is subject to the FRA’s review and approval under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the parties told the STB that Amtrak is preparing its NEPA submission and has obtained “special authorization from the FRA to continue proceeding with station design while the FRA’s environmental review process is ongoing and prior to FRA’s final NEPA decision.” They noted that FRA has required that no “ground-disturbing activities” may commence until NEPA clearance is granted and the FRA has signed off on the final project design.
According to the parties, this project depends on Amtrak successfully negotiating a land-use agreement with the city of Mobile “to govern Amtrak’s siting, construction, and use of a new passenger platform.” Amtrak has provided a draft agreement to and is “actively negotiating” terms with the city. “Amtrak understands that final land use terms must be approved by a supermajority vote of the Mobile City Council,” the parties said. “The Port has agreed to facilitate discussions and provide support for all efforts Amtrak undertakes with local authorities to promptly reach an agreement to secure the property.”
The parties concluded that “the effort to finalize the CRISI grant agreement and to restore the Gulf Coast service is receiving the highest levels of attention from each of the parties and from the FRA.” They noted that FRA Administrator Amit Bose “is convening regular meetings of the principals from each of the parties to assess and facilitate project advancement.” The first meeting was held in December 2023.
“The parties jointly and respectfully request that the Board continue to hold this matter in abeyance until such time as the parties notify the Board that the settlement terms have been fulfilled,” they wrote in the STB filing. “Amtrak believes that execution of the CRISI grant agreement is proceeding well and therefore expects that it will move for dismissal of this proceeding in the near future. If the parties do not file such a notice on or before May 1, 2024, they will submit a further joint status report.”
Southern Rail Commission Speaks Out
The Southern Rail Commission on Feb. 7 submitted a filing (download below), following its review of the joint status report by Amtrak, CSX, NS, and Alabama State Port Authority and Terminal Railway Alabama State Docks. The group said it was appreciative of the “sustained efforts and interest towards reinstating critical Gulf Coast passenger rail operations.” It acknowledged the “significance of finalizing the CRISI grant agreement and completing the Mobile Station Track Project,” but noted that “the matter of operating costs remains unaddressed.” Because of this, Southern Rail Commission requested “further inquiry into outstanding support needs that would be required to ensure successful restoration of Gulf Coast services.”
Contrarians at the Mobile City Council
By Contributing Editor David Peter Alan
By all appearances, the “Second Battle of Mobile” is winding down, and peace is in sight. The battle was fought fiercely at the Surface Transportation Board (STB) throughout 2022 until a settlement was announced at the end of that year. Now the Board is overseeing implementation of that settlement, which is intended to allow two passenger trains per day in each direction between Mobile and the Crescent City.
The paper the parties filed jointly with the STB says in pertinent part (at 3): “The Mobile Station Track Project depends on Amtrak successfully negotiating a land use agreement with the City of Mobile to govern Amtrak’s siting, construction, and use of a new passenger platform to be located on City-owned property, adjacent to the CSX right-of-way to be deployed for station track purposes. Amtrak has provided a draft agreement to the City of Mobile and is actively negotiating agreement terms with the City. Amtrak’s efforts included an in-person meeting with the Mayor and his staff in Mobile in December 2023. Amtrak understands that final land use terms must be approved by a supermajority vote of the Mobile City Council. The Port has agreed to facilitate discussions and provide support for all efforts Amtrak undertakes with local authorities to promptly reach an agreement to secure the property necessary for the Mobile Station Track Project.”
That might be easier said than done. The length of the layover track at the station, which “must be completed prior to the resumption of the Gulf Coast service on an interim schedule” (at 2, italics in original) could be a red signal. “That specific project entails installing approximately 3,000 feet of layover track at, and proximate to, the site of the former train station site in downtown Mobile, adjacent to existing CSX right-of-way” (Id.). The parties’ filing did not mention why it would be necessary to build such a long layover track, which would run five or six times the length of consists that Amtrak intends to run for the service; three or four coaches plus one or two units, depending on whether the trains run double-ended or in push-pull. The most positive development stated in the filing is that the Port of Mobile, which had opposed passenger rail service to the city, is now clearly on board.
Since the joint submission by the parties, there have been two letters received and posted by the STB on the subject. One came from Knox Ross, Vice Chair of the Southern Rail Commission, the official recipient of the CRISI grant, which supports capital improvements and not operations (above). Mobile Mayor William S. “Sandy” Stimpson declined participation in Feb. 14 hearing, saying: “As it stands, the City of Mobile and AmTrak [sic] are involved in forward moving negotiations on a weekly basis. Once we have reached an agreement, we will be more than happy to provide the board with a station update.”
Ross’s concern about operating support could turn a signal from green to yellow, but probably not to red. The City of Mobile’s act of declining the invitation to the hearing says nothing about the potential challenge now facing the proposed service. That is the issue of the “supermajority” vote of the Mobile City Council that stands as a precondition before the necessary station track can be built. The Council has seven members, so five of them must agree to build the project. While Ross’s concern about operating costs does not appear to constitute a red signal, the City Council’s similar concerns backed by its authority to vote the project down could have that effect.
John Sharp reported on the STB filing in the Mobile Journal Register on Feb. 1 that “a cost-sharing proposal could be a hurdle because it will need at least five of the seven votes from the city council. At least two council members have publicly expressed doubts or concerns about the project or Amtrak service in general … Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson, following his ‘State of the City’ address in January said that the city was waiting on Amtrak to provide an operational cost estimate that would be expected of the city to support the twice-daily service. The filing indicates that Amtrak has ‘provided a draft agreement of the land lease terms’ and is ‘actively negotiating agreement terms with the City.’”
Sharp‘s description of the “highlights within the filing” includes the proposed station location in downtown Mobile “at the foot of Government Street at Water Street and near Cooper Riverside Park”; a spot at or very close to the old station location that was used before the prior Gulf Coast service between New Orleans and Florida was discontinued in 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Support for the project has run as far east as the Alabama State Line. Missisippians along the Gulf Coast and state officials, including Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican, have consistently supported it, often enthusiastically. At Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg‘s confirmation hearing, the only question about Amtrak was Wicker‘s about that particular route. Support has generally been strong in New Orleans, too, although the Port of New Orleans had raised objections at one time. The situation is the opposite in Alabama. Gov. Kay Ivey and other state officials have consistently opposed the plan, and the Port of Mobile was as consistent in its strong opposition as host railroads CSX and NS. Now that the railroads and the Port are on board with allowing the trains to run, the question remains whether the City of Mobile will ride along, too.
In a report from Sept. 9, 2023, Sharp quoted Council member Ben Reynolds as saying: “My position is philosophically, I don’t want it to be a heavy burden for the taxpayer to be a novelty for a few people. I don’t want our folks hauled out of town and driven over to a casino [along the Mississippi Gulf Coast]. That doesn’t help us here in Mobile much.” Sharp also reported that Ross and Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari remain enthusiastic about the benefits that the new trains will bring to Mobile.
I called the City of Mobile to ask why the project required five votes from the seven-member Council, rather than a simple majority of four. There has been no response to my inquiry at this writing but, while it would be instructive to know the reason for such a requirement, such knowledge would not change the requirement itself.
If Reynolds votes against the deal, he will join Joel Daves, who cast the sole vote against the proposed service the previous time the issue came before the Council in February 2020. Daves has been a vocal opponent of the project ever since, and has called it “a joy ride for the affluent,” as Sharp quoted in last September‘s report. With anticipated opposition from Daves and Reynolds, the other five Council members would have to support the deal, or the entire proposed service could face a solid red aspect, which means an indication of STOP, at least for the foreseeable future.