News & Reviews News Wire Amtrak, freight railroads say they have a deal on Gulf Coast service (updated)

Amtrak, freight railroads say they have a deal on Gulf Coast service (updated)

By David Lassen | November 22, 2022

Parties say details are confidential, ask STB to hold further action in abeyance

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Passenger train with theater car at rear stopped at station
Amtrak’s Gulf Coast inspection train is welcomed at Bay St. Louis, Miss., on Feb.18, 2016. Amtrak and the freight railroads in the long-running Gulf Coast dispute say they have reached an agreement. Bob Johnston

WASHINGTON — The parties involved in the long-running dispute over Amtrak’s effort to launch Gulf Coast passenger service say they have reached an agreement, but at least initially are offering no details on the nature of that deal

In a joint statement Tuesday, Amtrak, CSX Transportation, Norfolk Southern, and the Alabama State Port Authority say they have “collectively reached an agreement to support passenger and freight service in the Gulf Coast Corridor. … Due to the confidential nature of the settlement agreement, the parties are not able to provide further comment on its terms at this time.”

The four parties asked the STB to hold in abeyance further proceedings involving the case, a request the board granted in a decision issued Tuesday afternoon, cancelling hearings set for Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, as well as a Dec. 7 conference to vote on a decision in the case.

The parties’ filing, available on the STB website, has details redacted but says it will take “several months” to complete the settlement.

“With the assistance of Board-sponsored mediators, the Parties have agreed upon a settlement that will — after several conditions are met in the coming weeks and months — completely resolve this dispute,” the filing says. “Some of these conditions are not entirely within the Parties’ control, however. Therefore, each Party has reserved its right to reinstate this proceeding in the event certain of those conditions are not met.”

The parties will provide the board with an update on the status of the agreement by June 30, 2023, if the agreement is not completed before then.

When the board announced its decision, STB Chairman Martin J. Oberman issued a statement saying the board “appreciates the successful efforts of Amtrak, CSX, NS, and the Port to settle this important case. I particularly want to acknowledge the significant progress that has been made in achieving a settlement under the new leadership of CSX and NS, which I expect brought a fresh constructive approach to resolving the matter.”

Noting that the board “has stated many times our strong preference for private parties to operate in good faith and to amicably resolve disputes on their own whenever possible to obviate the need for Board action,” Oberman said the settlement, by hastening the return of passenger operations on the route, “will result in a substantial public benefit” for residents and visitors to the region and have a positive impact on the economy.

“I look forward to the parties informing us of the specific infrastructure improvements that will be made to the rail network as a result of the settlement,” Oberman said.

Amtrak took the matter to the board in March 2021 [see “Amtrak asks STB to require CSX, NS to allow Gulf Coast service,” Trains News Wire, March 16, 2021]. This set off setting off a lengthy series of filings, as well as 11 days of hearings earlier this year, that have largely centered on the statutory requirement that freight railroads allow Amtrak service as long as it does not provide “unreasonable impairment” to freight operations. CSX and Norfolk Southern have argued throughout the case that the two daily round trips between New Orleans and Mobile, Ala., would, in fact, lead to such impairment — even while declining to publicly share how many trains use the line. Beyond that, the two sides have had sharply differing views of how much infrastructure work would be required to offset such impairment.

The sides have been engaged in mediation since June [see “STB grants Amtrak access …,” News Wire, June 11, 2022], but in October appeared to have reached an impasse in that effort and went back to the board. Once the board scheduled two final days of hearings for mid-November, however — and indicated it could vote on an outcome as soon as Dec. 7 — the parties sought additional mediation, leading to today’s announcement

The case has been viewed as having significance far beyond its route, as an STB ruling could set a precedent as Amtrak looks to expand corridor service elsewhere.

— Updated at 11:25 p.m. CST with additional information from filing with STB; revised and updated at 6:45 p.m. CST with STB decision and statement. Follow Trains News Wire for additional news and analysis as it becomes available.

12 thoughts on “Amtrak, freight railroads say they have a deal on Gulf Coast service (updated)

  1. Confidential ????? Amtrak and STB are public agencies that don’t keep public info secret. What sub-moron decided this deal is confidential?

  2. Reading Oberman’s response, I find myself also wondering if a change in leadership at the freight railroads, particularly CSX, is partly at play here. Mediation started before the new CSX CEO took over, but after the new one at Norfolk Southern. And the new guy at CSX seems like he understands the importance of good PR if the Santa Train reversal is any indication. As long as they can make the passenger trains work, it could still turn out positive for them. Assuming, that is, Amtrak can find any cars to run the service.

  3. If I were in Oberman’s shoes my response would be provide all the details to the public or no abeyance…end of sentence.

  4. If it involves Amtrak, it is subject to a FOIA. Sorry, that is the law.

    So dumb, CSX and NS “gave up something” they don’t want anyone else to know about. But you know darn well everyone will know exactly what the deal is when they implement it. So why the “top secret”?

  5. As noted, tough to get excited without any details and you won’t know until half way through next year. I doubt Amtrak will get much bang for its buck/taxpayers dollars in order to get passenger service to Mobile where as CSX & ports along this route will gain a significant investment

    In some ways, was hoping the Gulf Coast extension died on the grapevine and maybe Amtrak/Louisiana would put some effort in future extension of the proposed New Orleans to Baton Rogue service further north to Shreveport, LA & eventually tie up with Texas Eagle. It would also setup another north south option between Chicago to New Orleans via Little Rock & St. Louis. Not to mention the fact that you could also start up a direct Dallas/Fort Worth to New Orleans service.

  6. All of the above are cogent feelings that nothing will have happened by June next year. Amtrak has no equipment without scarfing it from somewhere else. (re Silver Star reduced for Silver Meteor). None of the railroads have enough manpower available to derange what they appear barely able to do reliably now.
    But….. by aprox next June the infrastructure (billions?) money from this year’s legislation may start to be available in large enough quantities to attract attention to a project that would get large publicity, get great props for local and state and Fed politicians, and settle with widespread credits a long and involved case before the Board.

  7. A textbook example of the “devil is in the details”!

    Three years ago, I would have been more optimistic. How long will it take to build the agreed upon improvements? Will the environmental review process be the next monkey wrench / delay tactic in the process?

    Hopefully , by the time the infrastructure improvements are built, Amtrak will have hired and trained enough employees to staff and service the two additional trains, and will have either acquired, or repaired and returned to service enough coaches to actually operate them.

  8. To my ear the barn door is still open, and June 30, 2023 sounds like a stall to be followed by another stall. If I were the STB, I had better be satisfied that this was not the case, before I held anything in abeyance.

  9. The public deserves better than a 100% confidential agreement when taxpayers are paying for Amtrak and funds the ports in whole or in part

    1. The details remain cloistered until the conditions are met signatures are given and ink actually dry.

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