WASHINGTON — The Federal Railroad Administration “has been unable to obtain access to all the data and analysis necessary” to properly review the issues involved in Amtrak’s effort to restart Gulf Coast passenger service, the agency said in a Monday filing to the Surface Transportation Board.
A letter penned by FRA Acting General Counsel John E. Putnam notes the “Gulf Coast Simulation Study” efforts, funded with a $250,852 grant to Amtrak, “failed to yield a consensus agreement on the sharing of relevant data inputs and model outputs, let alone the scope of capital improvements.” The FRA repeatedly attempted to address concerns with CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern about the conduct and completion of the study, the letter says, “but were unable to do so by the study’s originally scheduled end date in January 2021.”
The Port of Mobile, CSX, and NS have argued the study must be completed before two daily round trips between New Orleans and Mobile, Ala., can begin in 2022 [see “Analysis: Amtrak defends its Gulf Coast access request …,” Trains News Wire, April 29, 2021], but the FRA concludes “there does not appear to be any clear path forward … absent the [STB’s] involvement.”
The letter also offers the first public acknowledgement the FRA experienced similar issues with earlier study by the Gulf Coast Working Group in 2017, one mandated by Congress. Despite a federal expenditure of $700,000, including $171,275 paid directly to CSX for operations simulation work, the letter says “the FRA, Amtrak and other working group members were not able to obtain all the railroad data and analysis necessary” to examine all issues in restoring service on the Sunset Limited’s former route between New Orleans and Jacksonville, Fla. Based on its own analysis, the FRA estimated the route would require $118 million in improvements before service could be restored, while CSX estimated $2.3 billion in work would be required.
The FRA filing points out that, in addition to funding studies it claims to have been excluded from analyzing by NS and CSX, it has authorized $47.6 million in federal grants, accompanied by $52.3 million in a non-federal matches under several programs, to help launch the service.
The FRA letter, available here, asks the STB “to give careful and prompt consideration to Amtrak’s petition” and says its goal is “to ensure that passenger rail service may expand consistent with the law, while robust freight service, essential to the Nation’s economy, is preserved.”
Amtrak, in a statement Monday evening, says, “The FRA’s letter speaks for itself. Amtrak looks forward to the STB rendering a speedy decision.”