Settlement Reached in Amtrak Gulf Coast Dispute | So Good News


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David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor

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STB Chairman Marty Oberman said new leadership at Norfolk Southern (Alan Shaw, left) and CSX (Joe Hinrichs, right) “brought a fresh constructive approach to resolving the matter” with Amtrak, led by Stephen Gardner (center).

A little more than a week before the final hearing scheduled for the Surface Transportation Board (STB) regarding proposed Amtrak service between New Orleans and Mobile, the parties have apparently settled their differences.

Amtrak, CSX, Norfolk Southern and the Port of Mobile filed a Joint Motion (Docket No. FD-36496) to hold the Nov. 30 hearing, and a Dec. 7 meeting where the STB would issue its decision, pending, saying, “The parties have agreed to settlement terms that, when fully implemented, will lead to a complete resolution of this proceeding.”

The board approved this request on November 22, issuing a decision enabling the parties “to implement the terms of the settlement agreement.” STB’s unanimous decision is classified as Document no. 51507, which reproduces the history of proceedings and can also be found on STB’s website.

“The Board has stated many times our strong preference for private parties to operate in good faith and amicably resolve disputes on their own whenever possible to avoid the need for Board action.” – Marty Oberman

“The board appreciates the successful efforts of Amtrak, CSX, NS and the Port to settle this important case,” said board chairman Marty Oberman. “I would particularly like to acknowledge the significant progress that has been made in reaching a settlement under [chief executives Joe Hinrichs and Alan Shaw,] the new management in CSX and NS [respectively], which I expect provided a fresh constructive approach to solving the case. The Board has stated many times our strong preference for private parties to operate in good faith and amicably resolve disputes on their own whenever possible to avoid the need for Board action. The settlement in this case will speed up the return of passenger rail operations in the Gulf. This will result in a significant public benefit by providing a public transportation option for both Gulf Coast residents and visitors, and will have a very positive impact on the economy of the region. 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 express the board’s thanks to the brokers in this matter. Board staff worked with mediators from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to mediate this matter, 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 process. The Alabama State Port Authority, which operates the Port of Mobile and its rail division, Terminal Railway Alabama State Docks (TASD), later received permission from the board to intervene on the side of the potential host railroads.

The board ordered mediation in the case after that part of the trial in May, and mediation efforts continued through the summer, although the parties submitted statements in July that essentially confirmed the arguments they had made earlier. The parties acknowledged the help of the mediators 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 expressing the expectation that certain undisclosed conditions required for the settlement would be met in the coming months, they concluded by saying that they would submit a joint status report by June 30, 2023, if the terms of the settlement were not met off then.

The original document contained representations from the parties, but they were removed from the public version, so the details have not yet been disclosed. “We have collectively reached an agreement to support passenger and freight service in the Gulf Coast Corridor,” the parties said in a joint statement. “Due to the confidential nature of the settlement agreement, the parties cannot provide further comment at this time.” Nevertheless, the announcement that a settlement has been reached has given those affected a glimmer of hope.

Until the settlement was announced, it appeared that the case would remain contentious. Both sides strongly argued their cases, even in July, while mediation was ongoing. The STB had scheduled the final hearing for November 17 and 18, and postponed it for two weeks (as requested in document 305618, filed November 10), in the hope that the mediation process could resolve the case. In our previous coverage, we had referred to the case as a “slugfest”, and divided the case into “rounds”. Round 9 was fought through briefs filed in July, and the now-cancelled November 30 hearing would have been Round 10.

John Sharp reported on the potential deal in the Nov. 22 issue of Mobile’s Press Register that “the project was mostly celebrated by public officials in Mississippi and Louisiana, while Alabama largely opposed or raised concerns about how the restarted service would disrupt port operations in Mobile.” He also reported that some local Mobile officials did not follow that pattern: “The Mobile City Council entered the fray in February 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelmed public policy. On February 4 of that year, the council voted 6-1 to support a resolution to support Amtrak’s Gulf Coast service with future city funds. The lone “no” voice came from [Republican District 5] Councilor Joel Daves, who claimed the service would be nothing more than a “joyride for the wealthy.”

“I look forward to riding Amtrak to stations in Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi and Pascagoula again soon.” – Senate Senior Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Rep. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.)

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-awaited victory for Mississippi’s Gulf Coast communities, businesses and job creators,” Wicker said in a Nov. 22 statement. “Mississippi Gulf Coast residents have been without passenger rail service since Hurricane Katrina, and restoring it has been a top priority for me. Now, more than 17 years after Katrina, I am pleased to have a commitment from all parties involved that the Amtrak trains will return. This decision demonstrates what I have long believed – that freight and passenger trains can thrive together.

“I commend the leadership of Amtrak, the host railroads and the Port of Mobile for their diligent work to reach this resolution. I also want to express my thanks to the Southern Rail Commission. They have commissioned reports, participated in task forces, conducted studies and devoted thousands of hours to I will continue to support them as they work to implement this agreement and shift to overseeing the restored passenger service.

“I appreciate the time and attention given by the members of the Surface Transportation Board, who presided over 11 days of evidentiary hearings earlier this year. They have kept this case a priority while allowing mediation to proceed, allowing the parties to a negotiated settlement. I look forward to riding Amtrak to stations in Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi and Pascagoula again soon.”

“It doesn’t take an MBA graduate to calculate the cost of upsetting the senior Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee on Railroad Oversight, who is just one Democratic seat away from becoming chairman,” he commented. Railway age Capitol Hill Contributing Editor Frank N. Wilner.

Knox Ross, also a Mississippian and chairman of the Southern Rail 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 been waiting for it for a long time. after passenger rail – to prepare for service to begin. The settlement indicates a bright future for passenger rail, not just along the Gulf Coast, but throughout the southern U.S. Cooperation and effective negotiations between passenger rail providers, the freight industry, and our local, state and federal authorities are proving that there is a way forward to re-establish and expand the passenger train service.”

It appears Wickers and Ross’ hopes, along with those of many commuter rail advocates and area residents, will soon be realized. Plans call for two round trips per day between New Orleans and Mobile, with the four stops along the Mississippi Gulf Coast Wicker mentioned. 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, as it tested a provision in Amtrak’s enabling legislation, the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970, which required freight railroads to provide access to Amtrak trains in exchange for being relieved of their common carrier obligations to serve passengers. service. The future of all of Amtrak ConnectsUS plan, with proposals to open many new lines on host freight railways by 2035, could run on this issue.

The major contentious issues were how much infrastructure would need 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 further information about the settlement is released, the specter of a multi-year wait for passenger trains to return to Mobile and four cities along the Mississippi Gulf Coast appears to be fading. It now seems that such trains will run again – eventually.

Tags: Amtrak Gulf Coast Service, Breaking News


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