STB Calls for Status Hearing on Gulf Coast Amtrak Project

Amtrak, CSX, Norfolk Southern Invited to Alabama Hearing on Rail Dispute
Alabama railroad tracks
Railroad tracks along Water Street in downtown Mobile, Ala. The location is where Amtrak is looking to build a platform for passenger rail service connecting Mobile to New Orleans. (John Sharp/ via TNS)

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A federal board that oversaw hearings into the possible restart of Gulf Coast rail during 2022 is calling all the parties involved in the case for a status hearing, and the City of Mobile, Ala., is invited as well.

The U.S. Surface Transportation Board, in a news update Jan. 19, called on the parties involved in a lawsuit before them — Amtrak and the freight operators along the route (CSX and Norfolk Southern) plus the Alabama State Port Authority — to submit a status report by Feb. 1, updating the board on their settlement agreement to operate Amtrak service between New Orleans and Mobile.

The settlement agreement was reached in November 2022.

“We will review the STB’s action and respond in a timely manner,” said Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesman. “We appreciate the board’s continued attention to the Gulf Coast service.”

Bryan Tucker, a spokesman with CSX, said his company “is reviewing the decision and will be working with the other parties to provide a responsive update.”

A hearing is set for Feb. 14, allowing all parties to report on the settlement more fully. The City of Mobile is invited to participate “if it so chooses,” according to the board. The 11 a.m. hearing is one day after Mobile concludes the state’s largest annual festival, Mardi Gras.


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“The board’s announcement today requires that, because more than 14 months have elapsed since the announcement of a settlement, the February report must include detailed information regarding the status of settlement implementation and describe any issues that remain outstanding,” a news update says on the STB’s website.

The hearing might not have to take place, the STB noted, if the board determines the status report from the parties involved in the 2022 agreement “is sufficient.”

A hearing before the federal board, which would be a first since 2022, would come at a time when talks between the City of Mobile and Amtrak continue over a lease agreement for a train stop in downtown Mobile near Cooper Riverside Park. A lease agreement needs to be approved by the Mobile City Council in order for Amtrak to utilize the location for the Gulf Coast service, but there is no timetable on when that might occur.

The approval in Mobile is viewed as the last bureaucratic step needed to be finalized before capital improvements can be made and the Gulf Coast service can begin for the first time since Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the line in 2005.

Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson, following his “State of the City” address on Jan. 16, said the city was waiting on Amtrak to provide an operational cost estimate that would be expected of the city to support the twice-daily service between New Orleans and Mobile with four stops in Mississippi.

The Mobile City Council would have to approve a cost share package, and there are no guarantees that would happen. At least two council members have expressed concerns over the project, and it takes a supermajority of five out of seven council member to approve almost every budget expenditure in Mobile.

Mayor Sandy Stimpson

Mayor Stimpson

But the STB’s reinvolvement in the case could spark action. Before the settlement agreement was announced in November 2022, the STB had set a Dec. 7, 2022, date in which it was expected to determine the fate of the Gulf Coast project. The project represents the first time in the STB’s 27-year history that the federal board is involved in determining the control of a U.S. rail line pitting Amtrak against freight operators.

At the crux of the issue is whether a mandate established in 1971 should continue to require freight railroads to give passenger trains access to rail tracks in the U.S. During testimony in early 2022, experts said the Gulf Coast case could set a precedence for Amtrak’s operations throughout the country because it mostly operates on tracks owned by freight companies.

The STB’s involvement also coincides with a major federal investment into passenger rail by the Biden administration, which injected $66 billion of federal funds through the bipartisan infrastructure act that won congressional approval in late 2021.

The project has mostly been stalled since late 2022, and few details have been discussed due to a confidentiality agreement agreed upon by all parties. A $178.8 million federal grant dedicated toward infrastructure improvements was officially awarded to support the project in September, even though most observers anticipated the grant’s announcement.

Negotiations in Mobile did not begin until after the grant’s announcement, rankling pro-passenger rail advocates. Jim Mathews, president and CEO with Rail Passengers Association, told last month that there is skepticism about whether the project is intentionally being slowed by those who vocalized opposition before the STB.

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That included almost every speaker from Alabama, who expressed concerns that twice-daily service, without infrastructure improvements to the rail line, would harm the Port of Mobile, a key economic engine for the Alabama Gulf Coast.

Stimpson, before the STB, said that any action “that stands in the way of the continued and efficient operation of the Port of Mobile must be treated with microscopic scrutiny.”

John Robert Smith, chairman for Transportation for America and an advocate for the project, said during the 2022 hearing he felt the freight operators were attempting to spread fear in Alabama about Amtrak causing delays to Port of Mobile business in an effort to kill additional passenger rail service along the Gulf via “a torturous delay,” adding that “Death by delay must not become the order of the day.”

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