Since Hurricane Katrina swept through the American Deep South in 2005, destroying the region’s railroads, it’s no longer possible to travel east by train from New Orleans to the rest of the Gulf Coast. For years, Amtrak has attempted to restore service in the form of a twice-daily route between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama. But it has faced stiff resistance from two rail giants — CSX and Norfolk Southern — which own most of the track the agency wants to use.
Cargo companies argue that without major changes, any resumption of passenger service would leave their routes bogged down in traffic, costing the country’s supply chain at a time when businesses are already beset by shortages and slowing shipments. delay.
The dispute has been brought before federal regulators, with hearings set to resume on May 9, and experts say their ruling will have far-reaching implications for the future of passenger rail in the United States. President Joe Biden, once known as “Amtrak Joe,” is eager to push the railroad forward, allocating a $66 billion infrastructure package to Amtrak last year. This will help reduce transportation emissions – the largest source of greenhouse gases in the United States. But any growth in rail service needs to happen on private rail.
Public transit advocates worry that the losses could encourage freight companies to hamper passenger rail services elsewhere. “If CSX and Norfolk Southern succeed in preventing this, then the dream of expanding passenger rail will begin to wither and die across the country,” said John Robert Smith, the former Mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, who is now chairman of the railroad. Advocacy organization American Transportation.
Conflicts between Amtrak and trucking companies are common, but fighting along the Gulf Coast has inspired new tactics. In response to CSX’s claim that the New Orleans-Mobile line would take up a busy railroad, Amtrak last month broadcast live on Twitch at the train station in St. Louis Bay, Mississippi. The camera provided a tranquil scene reminiscent of when people took the train to beach towns on the weekends. From 8:00 am to 3:33 pm, birds chirping and the Gulf of Mexico beckons behind the empty train tracks.Amtrak number four trains in nearly eight hours.
Passenger trains should get the right of way on the track. In 1970, Congress created Amtrak to free private railroads from cash-draining passenger service. In return, the companies would prioritize Amtrak’s railroad — as long as it doesn’t “unreasonably harm” business. Today, the government-chartered company owns only 3 percent of the 21,400 miles it covers, mostly in the Northeast, so it has limited control over dispatch. According to Amtrak, freight companies rarely prioritize passenger trains. Delays are common, and in most cases, freight trains are the culprit.
CSX and Norfolk Southern said running passenger trains east from New Orleans would interfere with their schedules in Port Mobile, where railroads weave coal, grain, lumber and more along rivers that flow into Mobile Bay, contributing nearly $27 billion annual economic value. Before Hurricane Katrina, Amtrak’s Gulf Coast was mostly overnight driving. Now, Amtrak wants to run its trains at times more suitable for travelers, conflicting with peak freight times. Railroad companies are insisting that Amtrak pay $440 million for infrastructure upgrades, such as adding a passing zone or a second track to limit delays. Without these measures, the companies said they were facing a “near catastrophic collapse in their freight business.”
Their estimates topped those of the Southern Railroad Commission, a governor-appointed proponent of railroads from Louisiana to Florida that put up about $60 million after completing its 2017 report on the Gulf Coast Railroad upgrade. What’s more, Amtrak maintains that it has no legal obligation to pay for infrastructure upgrades — especially on private railroads.
If federal regulators allow trucking companies to set entry prices, that could affect Amtrak’s growth as well as President Biden’s climate plans. “We knew we needed to reduce our reliance on cars,” said Kevin DeGood, director of infrastructure policy at the Center for American Progress. “An unfavorable ruling could make it significantly more expensive for Amtrak to expand its service.”
Restoring passenger rail service will also improve the Gulf Coast’s ability to handle hurricanes, Smith said. He described the days around Hurricane Katrina: As Mayor of Meridian and an Amtrak board member, he helped create a plan to send trains to New Orleans to evacuate residents. But New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin rejected the offer, and an 800-seat train left the city nearly empty, according to Smith. (In congressional testimony, Nagin said Amtrak told the city that there were no trains available at the time.) Still, Smith said, it showed that “any threatened route out of a city along the Gulf could serve as a lifeline for people to evacuate.”
In January 2021, after a year of negotiations, Amtrak said it had stopped haggling with CSX and Norfolk Southern, after rail operators called for more research on how rail service could affect traffic through the Port of Mobile. In Amtrak’s view, enough research has been done to bring its case to the Surface Transportation Board, a federal agency that resolves disputes in the railroad industry. “Amtrak didn’t sit down,” said CSX spokeswoman Cindy Schild. “They decided to base that on that.”
This marks the first time the board will resolve such an argument. As a recent congressional study put it, “Amtrak’s network has changed little in recent decades, so this power is rarely exercised.” The ruling could provide guidance for future conflicts. In comments submitted to the board by the U.S. Department of Transportation last December, delegates urged regulators to uphold Amtrak’s right to use the railroad. Because the case is central to the Biden administration’s goal of expanding railroads, they wrote, “it is important to set a precedent in this case to justify governing statutes.”
The hearing began in February and lasted several weeks, with a ten-day break. They have drawn the interest of elected officials in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, who fear the consequences. “In this case, a wrong decision could result in the inability to bring passenger rail to Madison,” said Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway of Madison, Wisconsin, where the nearest station is 30 miles away. “This discourages travelers from using rail and increases the use of personal cars at a time when the country and our cities are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
Politicians in Louisiana and Mississippi see the return of the railroad as a boon for tourism in beaches, casinos and Mardi Gras areas, while lawmakers in Alabama tend to share freight companies’ concerns. “I don’t think now is the right time to voluntarily introduce dynamics that could add serious supply chains [crisis],” Alabama Representative Mac McCutcheon said in testimony to the Ground Transportation Commission in February.
Marc Magliari, a spokesman for Amtrak, who has set up a Twitch stream in St. Louis Bay, doesn’t expect the Transportation Commission to make a decision before the end of the month. Magliari, meanwhile, has promised more “very busy” livestreams of the track, but declined to say where it’s going next, lest the rail company know his next move. “They could have manipulated traffic knowing we were there,” he said.
*Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that the CSX spokesperson was referring to Amtrak’s process of establishing the service.