A little more than a week before the final scheduled hearing before the Surface Transportation Board (STB) on proposed Amtrak service between New Orleans and Mobile, the parties appear to have settled their differences.
Amtrak, CSX, Norfolk Southern and the Port of Mobile filed a Joint Motion (Docket No. FD-36496) to set the Nov. 30 hearing and a Dec. 7 meeting at which the STB will rule, on hold, saying, “The parties have agreed to terms of settlement which, when fully implemented, will result in a complete resolution of this proceeding.”
The board approved that request on Nov. 22, issuing a decision allowing the parties to “carry out the terms of the settlement agreement.” The unanimous decision of the STB is classified as Document No. 51507, which relates the procedural history and can also be found on the STB website.
“The board appreciates the successful efforts of Amtrak, CSX, NS and the Port to resolve this important case,” said Chairman Marty Oberman. “I particularly want to acknowledge the significant progress that has been made in reaching an agreement under [chief executives Joe Hinrichs and Alan Shaw,] the new management of CSX and NS [respectively], which I expect will bring a new constructive approach to solving the problem. The Board has stated many times our strong preference that private parties operate in good faith and resolve disputes on their own amicably whenever possible to avoid the need for Board action. Resolution 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 both Gulf Coast residents and visitors, and will have a very positive impact on the region’s economy. 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. Finally, I would like to thank the Board of Directors for the mediators in this case. Council staff worked with mediators from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to mediate this case and we are grateful for all their hard work.”
The dispute was brought before the board in 2021. Since then, there has been a public hearing in February and an 11-day evidentiary hearing (essentially a trial, with witnesses) last spring. Potential host railroads CSX and NS vigorously opposed Amtrak’s petition throughout the proceedings. The Alabama State Port Authority, which operates the Port of Mobile and its rail division, Terminal Railway Alabama State Docks (TASD), subsequently received permission from the Board to intervene on potential host railroads.
The board ordered mediation in the case after the May portion of the trial, and mediation efforts continued throughout the summer, even as the parties filed briefs in July that essentially restated the arguments they had previously made. The parties acknowledged the mediators’ assistance in their latest document, saying they “greatly appreciate the diligent efforts of the board-appointed mediators over the past several months to facilitate this settlement.” While they expressed an expectation that certain undisclosed conditions necessary for the settlement would be met in the coming months, they concluded by saying they would file a joint status report before June 30, 2023, if the terms of the settlement were not met by then.
The original document contained representations of the parties, but these were redacted from the public version, so the details are currently undisclosed. “We have reached a collective agreement to support passenger and freight services on the Gulf Coast Corridor,” the parties said in a joint statement. “Due to the confidential nature of the settlement agreement, the parties are unable to provide further comment at this time.” Still, the announcement that a settlement had been reached brought an air of hopeful anticipation to those concerned.
Until the deal was announced, it appeared that the issue would remain contentious. Both sides strongly argued their cases, even in July, while mediation was ongoing. The STB scheduled the final hearing for November 17 and 18, adjourning it by two weeks (as requested in Document 305618, filed November 10), in the hope that the mediation process could resolve the issue. In our previous coverage, we referred to the case as a “slugfest,” dividing the proceedings into “rounds.” The 9th round was fought through papers filed in July, and the now-cancelled Nov. 30 hearing would have been the 10th round.
John Sharp reported on the upcoming deal in the Nov. 22 issue of Mobile’s Press Record that “the project was mostly celebrated by public officials in Mississippi and Louisiana, while Alabama largely opposed or expressed concern about how the restarted service would interfere with port operations in Mobile.” He also reported that some local Mobile officials have not followed this pattern: “The Mobile City Council entered the fray in February 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic overtook public policy. The council, on February 4 of that year, voted 6-1 to support a resolution to support Gulf Coast Amtrak service with future city funds. The only “no” vote came [Republican District 5] Councilor Joel Daves, who claimed the service would be nothing more than a “joy ride for the wealthy”.
One of the most vocal boosters of the proposed service is Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the senior Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. “Today’s agreement is a long overdue victory for Mississippi Gulf Coast communities, businesses and job creators,” Wicker said in a Nov. 22 statement. “Residents on the Mississippi Gulf Coast have been without passenger rail service since Hurricane Katrina, and restoring it has been a priority for me. Now, more than 17 years after Katrina, I am pleased to have the commitment of all parties involved that Amtrak trains will return. This decision proves what we have long believed – that rail freight and passengers can thrive together.
“I commend the management of Amtrak, the host railroads and the Port of Mobile for their diligent work to reach this resolution. I would also like to express my appreciation to the Southern Railway Commission. They commissioned reports, participated in task forces, conducted studies, and devoted thousands of hours to the effort. I will continue to support them as they work to implement this agreement and move to oversee the restoration of passenger service.
“I appreciate the time and attention given by members of the Surface Transportation Board who presided over 11 days of evidentiary hearings earlier this year. They kept this issue a priority while allowing mediation to continue, allowing the parties to reach a negotiated resolution. I look forward to riding Amtrak again at the Bay St stations. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi and Pascagoula coming soon.”
“It doesn’t take an MBA candidate to calculate the cost of upsetting the senior Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee overseeing railroads, who is just one Democratic seat away from becoming chairman,” he commented . The Railroad Age Capitol Hill Contributing Editor Frank N. Wilner.
Knox Ross, also a Mississippian and chairman of the Southern Railroad Commission, said: “I am pleased with this settlement agreement and we will continue to build on this momentum by working with all parties involved, especially the communities that have waited so long . long for passenger rail — to prepare for the start of service. The settlement points to a bright future for passenger rail service, not only along the Gulf Coast, but throughout the southern United States. Effective collaboration and negotiations between passenger rail providers, the rail freight industry and our local, state and federal government agencies demonstrate that there is a path forward for restoring and expanding passenger rail service.”
It looks like the hopes of Wicker and Ross, along with those of many passenger rail advocates and area residents, will soon be realized. Plans call for two round trips a day between New Orleans and Mobile, with four stops along the Mississippi Gulf Coast noted. The 145-mile trip between New Orleans and Mobile is scheduled to take 3 hours and 25 minutes.
The Gulf Coast case has national implications because it tested a provision in Amtrak’s enabling legislation, the Passenger Rail Services Act of 1970, which requires freight railroads to provide access to Amtrak trains in exchange for a release from their carrier obligations common to operate passengers. service. The future of all of Amtrak ConnectUS plan, with proposals to open many new lines on the host freight railways by 2035, could go on this case.
The major contested issues were how much infrastructure needed to be built along the route to accommodate the new passenger trains as well as existing freight service, and at what cost and where a station would be located in Mobile. Until more information about the settlement is released, the specter of a multi-year wait before passenger trains can once again call on Mobile and four cities along the Mississippi Gulf Coast appears to be evaporating. Now it looks like such trains will be running again — eventually.