In a significant procedural victory for Amtrak, the Surface Transportation Board this morning issued a decision denying CSX’s motion to dismiss Amtrak’s action aimed at CSX and Norfolk Southern and set a schedule for a proceeding in which the freight railroads’ claims will finally be put to a legal test – a crucial step towards restoring passenger rail service along the Gulf Coast that has been suspended for more than 16 years.
Amtrak went to the STB to force CSX and Norfolk Southern to prove their outrageous claim that Amtrak’s proposed two trains a day between Mobile and New Orleans would somehow bring freight operations to and from the Port of Alabama to its knees. Amtrak also wanted the STB to order CSX and Norfolk Southern to get out of the way and let Amtrak start the new service next January.
Even before today’s action, it looks as if Amtrak’s decision to force the host railroads to put up or shut up had a motivating effect on everyone involved. Last month, staring down the barrel of a potentially adverse STB decision, CSX and Norfolk Southern granted Amtrak the limited access Amtrak says it needs to prepare to restore service next year. So, on that point, STB ruled Amtrak’s motion “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.”
What this morning’s order does is:
- it denies CSX’s motion that would have thrown out Amtrak’s petition;
- it rejects CSX’s assertion that the new service requires an environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA);
- it sets up a legal process known as “discovery,” which will compel CSX and N-S to share any data or studies it has that would support their assertion that restoring service would “impair unreasonably” existing service;
- it commits to an “expeditious” hearing schedule while also permitting time for any new study data to be completed and filed;
- it appoints an Administrative Law Judge to oversee the discovery process, and;
- it denies Amtrak’s motion for initial access as “moot,” since CSX and Norfolk Southern granted access last month.
There are Rail Passengers members who, no doubt, will be disappointed that this morning’s ruling didn’t just sweep CSX and N-S aside and clear the way for Amtrak to start service. But consider what might have followed had STB acted in that way. CSX and N-S would have been able to claim that their evidence wasn’t considered, and that the Board had acted precipitously. The way the STB has decided to handle this issue is masterful. There will be a full proceeding, with data and evidence produced and put to the test before a neutral arbiter. The bad-faith arguments will be dragged out into the light. And the resulting decision, which I’m confident will support restored service, will be that much stronger and less subject to debate and appeal.
This is a good day for passenger rail in the Gulf Coast.