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N-S, Amtrak Trade Queries In Gulf Coast Proceeding
August 19, 2021 by Jim Mathews

In a Surface Transportation Board filing on Wednesday night Amtrak posed some tough and long-awaited questions to CSX and Norfolk Southern about those railroads’ objections to re-starting Gulf Coast passenger rail service, looking for information and documents to support the host railroads’ claims that passenger service would tie up freight traffic and require some $2.3 billion worth of additional investment to untangle it.

Unless the STB or Administrative Law Judge Thomas McCarthy say otherwise, STB practice guidelines mean that CSX and N-S will have to supply answers – or objections – before Labor Day.

Norfolk Southern kicked off the discovery process last Friday, filing its first set of questions to Amtrak in what lawyers call “interrogatories,” along with asking for documents from Amtrak (which lawyers call a “Request for Production” or RFP). Amtrak’s answers are due on August 30.

All of this legal back-and-forth may be hard to follow, but these are important steps toward getting passenger service started again between New Orleans and Mobile, wiped out 17 years ago this month by Hurricane Katrina.

CSX has repeatedly asserted that it will take more than $2 billion in investment to accommodate a single passenger train every 12 hours into and out of Mobile, despite other estimates – including those supported by the Federal Railroad Administration – putting the real costs as low as $117.7 million.

In your Association’s May 17th filing to the Surface Transportation Board in this matter, we pointed out that “CSX has offered no concrete details on how precisely a single train, spending a few minutes transiting to park for several hours on a siding off the main line, can possibly bring freight traffic to a halt.”

Amtrak’s questions and document requests last night essentially seek those concrete details. Amtrak wants CSX to share information on Gulf Coast shippers using those tracks, their volumes, their consists, their service schedule and their projected needs for the next 20 years. Amtrak wants the same kind of information for “local train operators” running freight trains in that territory, the size of their consists and the frequency of their use, as well as their schedules.

CSX is also being asked to describe any alterations they’ve made to the territory in the past decade, as well as alterations to scheduling of existing traffic through the territory during the same period.

As your Association noted in its May 17th filing, the legal standard here is that Amtrak has the right to operate on this territory while paying reasonable fees, unless a host railroad can prove that the proposed passenger service would “unreasonably impair” CSX’s freight service. In addition to the detailed questions and document requests above, Amtrak’s legal team pointedly asked CSX two crucial questions:

“Identify the basis for and provide all evidence that supports your statement to the Gulf Coast Working Group on August 5, 2016 that the ‘necessary improvements for any Gulf Coast passenger restoration’ would cost ‘at a minimum, $2 billion.’"

“Identify the basis for and provide all evidence that supports your position, as reported to the Gulf Coast Working Group on May 10, 2017 that ‘all infrastructure improvements, based on 20 year growth projections, must be completed before [Amtrak] will start the first day of service’ and why you have ‘zero interest in phasing the infrastructure improvements’ over time.”

Indeed. Tens of thousands of potential passengers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama have been waiting for more than four years for these answers. Perhaps we’re on the verge of finally getting them.

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