Amtrak, freight companies to settle dispute over Gulf Coast service


A bitter dispute between two freight companies and Amtrak over restoring passenger service on the Gulf Coast is being settled, the railroads announced this week, potentially ending a major obstacle to the expansion of passenger service in the Southern United States.

An agreement between Amtrak, CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern offers a path to the return of passenger trains along a 140-mile route from New Orleans to Mobile, Ala., 17 years after Hurricane Katrina flooded the region’s rail infrastructure.

The announcement comes after six years of stalled negotiations and intervention from a federal board that forced the railroads into mediation this year. The case has come to highlight hostility between the railroads, as well as the challenges Amtrak faces to expand its footprint nationwide. Amtrak operates mostly on tracks owned by other railroads, and the process to secure usage can take years, even though federal law requires railroads to prioritize passenger travel.

“We have collectively reached an agreement to support passenger and freight service in the Gulf Coast Corridor,” the railroads and the Alabama State Port Authority said in a joint statement Tuesday.

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The railroads and the port authority, which had joined freight companies in opposing Amtrak’s return to the region, filed a motion Monday with the Surface Transportation Board informing it of their intent to settle. Amtrak last year filed a case with the board seeking its support to force the freight companies to allow it to operate intercity trains. The five-member panel has listened to more than 80 hours of testimony, examination and cross-examination since February and was expected to resume hearings next week, then vote next month.

Board Chairman Martin J. Oberman said Tuesday he welcomed the resolution, noting that the board’s preference was for the railroads to “amicably resolve” the dispute without board action. The STB on Tuesday granted the railroads’ requests to proceed with settling, a process that is likely to take months.

“The settlement of this case will hasten the return of passenger rail operations in the Gulf. This will result in a substantial public benefit by providing a public transportation option for Gulf Coast residents and visitors alike and will have a very positive impact on the economy of the region,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to the parties informing us of the specific infrastructure improvements that will be made to the rail network as a result of the settlement.”

The railroads and the port authority offered no details about the deal, saying in their joint statement that they cannot provide more comment because of “the confidential nature of the settlement agreement.” The motion filed Monday to the STB states they have agreed “upon a settlement that will — after several conditions are met in the coming weeks and months — completely resolve this dispute.”

Amtrak is a top travel choice in the Northeast. With an ally in the White House, it wants trains in the rest of America.

Amtrak has proposed to bring two daily round-trips between New Orleans and Mobile, including stops in the Mississippi cities of Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi and Pascagoula. That plan is an expansion of its pre-Katrina service, when long-distance trains arrived overnight, three times a week.

CSX, which owns most of the track between New Orleans and Mobile, has said it would agree to Amtrak’s pre-Katrina service levels, but it opposed a service plan with more trains using the corridor during peak hours. The two sides could also not agree for years on the capital investment needed to restore service. The Federal Railroad Administration estimated the price tag at $118 million, while CSX said it would take $440 million.

Amtrak’s plan for the Gulf Coast is one of 39 routes the railroad is pursuing as part of its $75 billion vision announced last year to reach dozens more cities and towns. The aspirations coincide with the growing demand for rail service, supported by the infrastructure law President Biden signed last year. The measure includes $66 billion for the nation’s ailing rail network.

Because the railroads had not agreed to give Amtrak access, federal statute tasked the STB — an independent federal agency that regulates freight rail — with intervening. The railroads are expected to report to the STB the specific infrastructure improvements that will be made to the rail network as a result of the settlement.

Supporters of passenger rail service welcomed the news of an agreement that would return Amtrak trains to the Gulf Coast, which was discontinued after Katrina devastated the region in 2005.

“That 17-year journey has been filled with obstacles and frustration,” Jim Mathews, president and chief executive of the Rail Passengers Association, said in a statement. “If we want the US passenger rail network to catch up with our global competitors, we cannot require that states, cities and citizens invest 17 years to launch a new service.”

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The Southern Rail Commission, a panel of state-appointed members from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama that has pushed for a decade to bring trains back, said in a statement that the announcement is a sign of “a bright future for passenger rail service not only along the Gulf Coast, but throughout the southern United States.”

The commission, which helped secure $66 million for improvements in the corridor, said it sees the return of Amtrak service as critical to the region’s growth and economic development.

“We will continue to build on this momentum by working with all parties involved — especially the communities that have been waiting so long for passenger rail — to prepare for service to start,” said Knox Ross, the commission’s chair.

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