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Federal hearing on Amtrak’s planned Gulf Coast service powers on

The evidentiary hearing that the Surface Transportation Board is conducting this week on Amtrak’s request to restore Gulf Coast service between Mobile, Alabama, and New Orleans appears poised to stretch beyond its original two-day schedule as the board and witnesses wrangle over what is and isn’t within the board’s jurisdiction.

Amtrak is seeking to reestablish service between the two Gulf Coast cities after service was stopped in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Amtrak wants to run two daily trains between New Orleans and Mobile. However, CSX, Norfolk Southern and the Port of Mobile contest that the service would have adverse impacts to freight and port operations if no additional investments are made to the supporting infrastructure. 

Both parties say the board’s decision could set a precedent for future requests to expand passenger rail service. Since a number of Amtrak routes run on track owned by the Class I railroads, there has been an ongoing question over whether Amtrak should share some responsibility in maintaining the upkeep on the network. The proceeding also addresses the timing of when Amtrak could establish new service if there are lingering questions about infrastructure investments.

The hearing, which began Monday and will continue on the optional day of Wednesday and likely Friday, has so far included questions about whether the board has the authority to require Amtrak to invest in the contested stretch. Other questions included whether the proceeding would be better considered under another regulatory provision so that the board can better understand where its authority lies, as well as questions about existing infrastructure, such as how the movable bridges along the route affect freight operations.

The first witness for CSX (NASDAQ: CSX) and Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) spent over four hours on Monday and Tuesday fielding questions about existing operations and data. Legal counsel representing NS, CSX, the Port of Mobile and Amtrak were also there to field questions or raise comments about the proceeding.

“The statute allows you to impose infrastructure, and NS asks you to do so,” said Bill Mullins, an attorney representing NS.

However, there were disagreements between the freight railroads and Amtrak not only about who would fund what, but also the timing and time frame of those investments. Amtrak tends to look at investments via a five-year time frame versus the freight railroads’ time frame of 20 years.

Another question is when Amtrak should be able to resume service amid those investments, including whether Amtrak service can start immediately or if infrastructure investments need to be added first to the network.

The first day of the hearing is available here, and the second day is available here.

Amtrak says it and the other stakeholders have been seeking to return service to the Gulf Coast since 2015 but that CSX and NS have been unwilling to share data that would enable the parties to complete a study on how freight operations would be impacted. 

CSX and NS argue that it was Amtrak that removed itself from completing the study, opting instead to go before the board.

Amtrak contests that it has a legal right to use this route, and it argues that the route has sufficient capacity to host its trains. It says up to $66 million in federal funding for targeted improvements has been granted to support the new intercity passenger rail service along this line.

CSX, NS and the Port of Mobile say they don’t object to Amtrak service on the route, but Amtrak is requesting access during the daytime, whereas the previous service ran during nighttime hours. Questions also arose during a public hearing in February over who would pay for the infrastructure upkeep once federal funding runs out.

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Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Joanna Marsh.