MOBILE, Ala. (WKRG) – Amtrak service will be restored from Mobile to New Orleans with stops along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
A settlement was reached late Monday, Nov. 21 between Amtrak and parties opposing the government’s plan to restore service, including the Alabama Port Authority, CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads, according to a filing with the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB).
The board Tuesday agreed to cancel a scheduled hearing later this month where it would have decided by December 7 whether Amtrak could resume service and on what terms.
“I particularly want to acknowledge the significant progress that has been made in
achieving a settlement under the new leadership of CSX and NS, which I expect brought a fresh
constructive approach to resolving the matter. The Board has stated many times our strong
preference for private parties to operate in good faith and to amicably resolve disputes on their
own whenever possible to obviate the need for Board action,” said STB chair Martin Oberman.
The details of the settlement were not released in the filing. The parties requested the board give them until June 30, 2023 to report that the terms of the settlement are fulfilled.
Southern Rail Commission member Knox Ross told The Birmingham News the commission will be in Mobile to host a meeting on December 9, at which time Ross said he hopes more details about the restarted service are known.
Stops on the route will tentatively include Pascagoula, Biloxi, Gulfport, and Bay St. Louis in Mississippi. The 2021 plan called for 28 new trips per week. A 2015 Amtrak study says that a twice-daily train between Mobile and New Orleans would draw 38,400 riders annually and likely cost about $7 million annually to operate.
Freight company CSX Transportation had been at odds with Amtrak over the proposed route for years. Amtrak service never returned to the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina.
Mobile City Council voted 6-1 in February 2020 to help restore the route. At that time, Mobile’s share was estimated to be just over $3 million spread across three years, with Louisiana providing $10 million and Mississippi $18 million across the same period.
Additional destinations from Mobile were also floated. A former Gulf Breeze route ran from Mobile through Bay Minette to Montgomery, before ending in Birmingham.
From 1993 through 2005, Amtrak operated an extension of the Gulf Coast Passenger Rail Service with night-time stops through the region, as part of a transcontinental Los Angeles-Florida run. It was riddled with late departures and arrivals and didn’t perform well financially with no daytime service.
A 2018 study from the University of Southern Mississippi said the plans for the proposed business hours route could bring $24.2 million annually to Mississippi’s economy with a minimal 1% increase in tourism.
Amtrak filed a petition in 2021 with STB to operate the Mobile to New Orleans route along the freight-owned railways after failing to reach any agreements with CSX and Norfolk Southern.
Alabama state leadership largely sided with CSX. Mississippi leaders, such as US Sen. Roger Wicker, said Amtrak’s return to the Gulf Coast has been delayed long enough.
STB held public hearings in Mobile in February. CSX and Alabama Port Authority said they weren’t opposed to the idea of passenger rail service as a whole, but Amtrak needed to fund rail infrastructure improvements in order to accommodate it.
CSX had provided multiple estimates over the years for the infrastructure cost — most recently $405 million. At one time, they claimed upgrades would cost $2 billion.
Over 285 people and organizations, from as far away as Ohio and Wisconsin, are parties of interest for the proceedings with the transportation board.
Without a settlement, a decision by the board could have set a precedent for whether Amtrak could legally expand service across the country against the opposition of freight rail operators.
Amtrak released a plan last year to add 39 new routes by 2035 with $66 billion from the federal infrastructure bill.
In a statement Tuesday, the settled parties said:
“We have collectively reached an agreement to support passenger and freight service in the Gulf Coast Corridor. The parties filed a motion today informing the Surface Transportation Board that a settlement agreement has been reached and asking that the case be held in abeyance while the parties execute the various conditions of that settlement agreement. Due to the confidential nature of the settlement agreement, the parties are not able to provide further comment on its terms at this time.
We thank the federal mediators appointed by the Surface Transportation Board for their work on this effort.”