Amtrak asks for access to rails to restore Alabama Gulf Coast service

Published 6:37 am Thursday, March 18, 2021

Amtrak says it has asked a federal agency to require that two freight railroads provide access to their rails for the resumption of passenger train service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

The passenger rail corporation, partially owned by the government, announced plans in February to provide the service for the first time since Hurricane Katrina badly damaged tracks and other railroad infrastructure in 2005. Freight trains resumed running in the area after repairs, but Amtrak service didn’t.

In a Tuesday news release, Amtrak said it has been unable to reach agreement for access to rails of CSX and Norfolk Southern Railway. Its petition to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board seeks access to the rails so that passenger service can resume on or around Jan. 1.

Negotiations have been going on for five years, Amtrak said, with “no agreement in sight and no guaranteed end to negotiations forthcoming.”

Amtrak says cost is a sticking point. Its petition says a congressionally directed working group determined in 2017 that rail service could resume with an initial $5.4 million in capital improvements, followed by $95 million in subsequent improvements after service resumed.
The petition said CSX put the cost of needed improvements for passenger service at $2 billion, according to Amtrak’s petition.

“Amtrak elected to abandon the long-standing practice of completing an impact study when the introduction of new passenger service is proposed,” CSX said in a statement Tuesday. “Now that this matter is before the Surface Transportation Board, CSX has no further comment.”

Norfolk Southern declined comment on the petition in a Tuesday email, referring to a past prepared statement calling for “identifying, through a data-driven study, what infrastructure is necessary to ensure that the new passenger service is transparent to freight operations and doesn’t negatively impact the freight rail customers.”

Amtrak says its plans were based on “data-driven and federally led studies” and that there is sufficient capacity on the route to accommodate the planned twice-daily round trips.

“The overriding principle at play is Amtrak’s legal right to access freight railroad track structure for a fair and reasonable cost,” Jim Mathews, president of the Rail Passengers Association, said in a statement Wednesday. “CSX has said it will take $2 billion to accommodate a single train every 12 hours; that is not reasonable, and it is not fair.”

He said Amtrak’s petition to the federal agency will “allow us to see what the true cost of restoring this service will be.”