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New STB Schedule Kicks Gulf Service Decision to Early 2022
October 15, 2021 by Jim Mathews

Tussling over Amtrak’s plans to restore long-delayed Gulf Coast passenger service, CSX, Norfolk Southern, and Amtrak will submit evidence and rebuttals between November 3rd and Christmas Eve under a new schedule ordered by the Surface Transportation Board this morning.

The warring parties unanimously asked the Board to extend the procedural schedule by two weeks, and the Board recognized that in granting the motion to extend.

“However, the parties should be aware that any further requests to extend the procedural schedule, even when agreed to, will be scrutinized closely, and they should not assume that further extensions will be routinely granted,” the Board warned in today’s order.

The new schedule means the Board will consider proposals on the hearing format on the last business day of calendar 2021. And that means any substantive hearings won’t happen until early in 2022. In March, Amtrak said it had hoped to start operating two trains per day in each direction somewhere around the first of January next year.

While many of our members may find following legal skirmishes confusing and maybe even tiresome, make no mistake: this proceeding is extremely important to the future of any expanded service Amtrak may want to start. Host railroads have relied in the past on spurious and sometimes outrageous arguments to defeat passenger rail expansion. The STB docket is stuffed to the brim with data and history showing that the questions CSX and N-S are posing were already asked and answered. Multiple times. They just don’t like the answer and will keep the billable hours flowing to top-notch law firms until they finally get that one study (study #2,456 perhaps?) that gives them the cover to stop the restoration. Amtrak’s decision in March to put the host railroads’ 16 years of Gulf Coast foot-dragging before the Surface Transportation Board was a crucial step in putting those arguments to a legal test.

We’ve been watching closely all along and filing statements to the docket when appropriate. The Board is expecting to get statements by the end of the year about how the actual hearing early next year should be formatted. Your Association is considering whether to ask STB for a full public hearing with witness testimony.

Meanwhile, just the existence of the proceeding is getting CSX and Norfolk Southern to sharpen their pencils. In July, staring down the barrel of a potentially adverse STB decision, CSX and Norfolk Southern granted Amtrak the limited access Amtrak said in March that it needs to prepare to restore service next year.

Because of that concession, STB in August ruled that this portion of Amtrak’s motion had become “moot,” and, sounding like a parent admonishing warring siblings, reminded them that as the proceeding over Gulf service unfolds the Board “expects them to continue to resolve areas of disagreement such as this as much as possible.”

Rail Passengers is already aware of offline, unofficial, proposals CSX is circulating that would dramatically back off from the $2-plus billion it claims is needed to begin service. The Gulf Coast Working Group’s estimate in 2017 was a little more than $100 million, and if the existence of this proceeding is encouraging CSX and Norfolk Southern to return to negotiating reasonable numbers then that alone is a good thing.

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