The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is supporting efforts to bring Amtrak service to the Gulf Coast, acknowledging the challenges that stakeholders have had in reaching a consensus over infrastructure and operational needs.
A Monday letter from DOT, representing the interests of the agency as well as the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), asks the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to “give careful and prompt consideration” to Amtrak’s request to provide daily service in 2022 between New Orleans, Louisiana, and Mobile, Alabama.
“We ask the board to give careful and prompt consideration to Amtrak’s petition, and we will be glad to provide any additional information or resources that would aid in the board’s decision-making process,” said the letter written by John E. Putnam, DOT’s acting general counsel. “FRA looks forward to the opportunity to participate in any proceeding that the board initiates, to ensure that passenger rail service may expand consistent with the law, while robust freight rail service, essential to the nation’s economy, is preserved.”
The letter said numerous federal studies have examined the prospect of providing Amtrak service on the Gulf Coast, and it said that one of the reasons why Amtrak service hasn’t been restored is because of disagreements over how much investment would need to be made to enable Amtrak and freight rail service.
“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 intercession,” the letter said.
According to DOT, FRA has previously estimated that $118 million would be needed to restore service, while CSX estimates that $2.3 billion would be needed.
DOT also says there hasn’t been enough data available to reach a conclusion about how best to restore service. FRA has been involved with a working group since 2015 to restore intercity passenger rail service to the Gulf Coast, although efforts stalled and were “not brought to a successful resolution,” according to the letter. The group’s purpose was to examine potential options for service, including frequencies and trip times, and identify capital improvements needed for service restoration.
The working group also consisted of representatives from Amtrak; the state DOT of 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 that would be affected, including CSX, Norfolk Southern (NS) and Florida DOT/SunRail.
Furthermore, the lack of adequate data in a 2020 study convened by Amtrak, CSX and NS has also hampered efforts to restore service, according to DOT. That study, which DOT said would have served as the basis for what capital improvements would be needed, also received federal funding and involved FRA.
“Unfortunately, the Gulf Coast simulation study efforts failed to yield a consensus agreement on the sharing of relevant data inputs and model outputs, let alone the necessary scope of capital improvements,” DOT said. “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.”
The letter continued, “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.”
Indeed, CSX, NS and other stakeholders in Alabama, such as the Alabama State Port Authority, have also said that the lack of adequate data has hampered efforts to restore service, although they disagree with Amtrak and stakeholders in Mississippi about what data is and isn’t available.
In a Tuesday filing, CSX said it has supplied the data needed for the 2020 study to a third-party group overseeing the study. CSX said what Amtrak objects to is that it can’t see the data provided by CSX and NS.
“Amtrak’s complaint is that Amtrak did not get to see the data provided by CSXT [CSX Transportation] and NSR [Norfolk Southern Railway]. But that is exactly what the parties agreed to. In January 2020, Amtrak, CSXT and NSR all agreed to a data-sharing agreement, which provided that no party would be required to provide confidential business information (including stringline diagrams) to anyone other than” HDR Engineering, the group contracted by Amtrak to conduct the 2020 study, CSX said. “Thus, CSXT, NSR and Amtrak could share confidential data with HDR, but would not be required to share it with each other.
“The point of the RTC [rail traffic controller] study and data-sharing agreements was to designate HDR as the neutral third-party expert that would evaluate the limitations and needs of the Gulf Coast corridor and proposed passenger service,” it said.
And in an April 26 letter to STB, Alabama State Port Authority John C. Driscoll disagreed with how other regional stakeholders have characterized what data is available. As an example, Driscoll said he attended a September 2020 meeting of the Southern Rail Commission (SRC), an interstate rail compact, in which he said the port authority for Mobile wasn’t asked to provide operational data that would help enable adequate rail traffic or modelling assessments.
The Mississippi and Louisiana delegations of the SRC want STB to expedite Amtrak’s request before the board, according to an April 23 letter to STB, but SRC’s Alabama delegation did not sign the letter.
After Amtrak filed its petition before the STB in March asking the board to compel CSX and NS to allow passenger rail service, CSX and NS filed a motion on April 5 asking the board to dismiss the proceeding.
Amtrak objected to that motion in an April 26 filing.