Put Up Or Shut Up
March 16, 2021
Amtrak is heading to the Surface Transportation Board to get the long-awaited Gulf Coast service up and running
By Jim Mathews / President & CEO
About a year after we cleared what everyone thought was a final hurdle to launching a new, twice-daily service between New Orleans and Mobile – a key Mobile City Council vote – CSX and Norfolk Southern are deploying yet another delaying tactic to slow or even stop this service.
Amtrak is not here for it.
Today, 16 years after Katrina wiped out service to those communities and 15 years after the tracks were restored, Amtrak went to the Surface Transportation Board with a blunt message to the obstructionists: put up, or shut up.
Amtrak’s STB filing kicks off a process in which “CSX and NS will be required to provide Amtrak access to their railroads for this service or prove to the public why they cannot successfully host these trains in accordance with the law,” Amtrak says in a prepared statement.
The railroad is asking for “expedited consideration” for an order that would clear the way for Amtrak to begin service in about nine months’ time.
It didn’t have to come to this, but it’s the next logical step in a process that has been slowed at every opportunity by CSX Transportation, Norfolk Southern and others. It’s obstructionism, and it will deny Alabama’s residents some $6 million in economic benefits from building and launching the new service, and anywhere from $12 million to as much as $220 million in benefits every single year to Alabama’s economy.
We trust the STB will inject much-needed transparency in the effort to restore a vital transportation link for the two million residents of the Gulf Coast in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama—severed since Hurricane Katrina devastated the region in 2005.
The overriding principle at play is Amtrak’s legal right to access freight railroad tracks for a fair and reasonable cost. CSX has said it will take $2 billion to accommodate a single train every 12 hours. Well, that’s not reasonable and it’s not fair. In fact, it’s indefensible. Despite breathless claims that adding Amtrak service would somehow paralyze rail operations at the Port of Alabama, CSX has offered no concrete details on how precisely a single train, spending perhaps a minute or two transiting to park for several hours on a siding off the main line, can possibly bring freight traffic to a halt.
CSX is saying with a straight face that even though NASA is able to send a robotic rover 150 million miles from Earth to Mars, for the same amount of money CSX can’t manage 140 miles from New Orleans to Mobile.
There’s another, even bigger worry: if a freight railroad can draw out the process to restore passenger train service along a single corridor for longer than a decade, then there is little hope for passenger rail projects anywhere in the U.S., and all of the exciting corridor-development maps we’ve seen since last Fall are at real risk.
If we lose, it could leave all Americans permanently stuck using a second-class transportation system, not just those in Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana. We’re officially joining with the Southern Rail Commission, Transportation for America and Amtrak in asking the STB to bring this access negotiation to a speedy and fair resolution, and to let us see what the true costs of restoring this service will be.
Rail Passengers has already issued our own press release, and we're working now on organizing our members along the Gulf Coast to ensure that elected officials in the region understand the deep reservoir of local support for this project. We’ll be working to get more info to our members along the Gulf Coast, with online campaign tools for our members to use. Meanwhile, if you’d like to donate to support our continuing work on Gulf Coast restoration, new dining-car mandates, daily service or any of our other campaigns, donate through this link.
"The Rail Passenger Association's recognition of the essential work done by SMART-TD members aboard Amtrak during this difficult period is appreciated. The Golden Spike Award serves as a testament to the compassion and dedication our conductors, assistant conductors and other workers exhibit constantly through times both ordinary and extraordinary."
Jeremy Ferguson, SMART-TD President
December 21, 2021, on the Association awarding its 2021 Golden Spike Award to the Frontline Amtrak Employees.