News & Reviews News Wire Gulf Coast impasse at Mobile remains unresolved: Analysis

Gulf Coast impasse at Mobile remains unresolved: Analysis

By Bob Johnston | March 18, 2024

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Sign for Sunset Limited at Mobile, Ala., station
A sign inside the Mobile, Ala., station On July 29, 1996, touts the triweekly Sunset Limited and soon to be discontinued Gulf Coast Limited. The Mobile station was destroyed nine years later by Hurricane Katrina. Bob Johnston

WASHINGTON — Parties in the settlement intended to lead to the start of Gulf Coast passenger service said in a status report to the Surface Transportation Board that negotiations between Amtrak and the city of Mobile for a lease of downtown city land “are continuing to move forward.”

The report filed Friday by Amtrak, Norfolk Southern, CSX Transportation, and the Port of Mobile responds to a request made by the regulatory agency last month, after it failed to get answers it sought at a Valentine’s Day hearing [see “STB members question Gulf Coast delays …,” Trains News Wire, Feb. 15, 2024].

The city is not a party to the still-confidential 2022 agreement the parties forged to avert a possible STB-imposed decision. The small parcel — part of a parking lot — is needed so a pocket track and platform can be built that would allow two daily New Orleans-Mobile Amtrak round trips to clear the CSX main line. The adjacent double track, where a February 2016 inspection train stopped — and Amtrak’s Sunset Limited previously paused until Hurricane Katrina blasted through in 2005, ending that service — is also used by Alabama State Docks and CSX transfer runs.

Aerial view of parking lot next to railroad tracks
A lease for part of this parking lot, at the former site of the Mobile Amtrak station, remains a sticking point in establishing Gulf Coast service. Google Earth

Approval of a lease acceptable to both Amtrak and the city is one of the prerequisites before the parties can begin to spend a $178 million federal Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvement (CRISI) grant to improve route capacity.

The status report reveals timeline information requested by the STB previously not disclosed by Amtrak. It says the first meeting with Mobile officials occurred in October 2021, and land lease discussions initially took place in March 2022.

This was after STB Gulf Coast hearings began on Feb. 15-16, 2022. During those hearings, comments from Mobile leaders echoed opposition to the passenger service in support of CSX and the Port, who both disputed Amtrak’s original contention that infrastructure upgrades weren’t needed to begin two round trips. Board Chairman Martin Oberman deduced at the time that some local critics of the passenger service seemed to depend on CSX for information [see “First day of Gulf Coast hearing …,” News Wire, Feb. 15, 2022].

As a total of 13 hearings were held throughout 2022, it became clear a negotiated settlement needed to include a layover track for the downtown Mobile station. The report says Amtrak and city officials “had regular discussions regarding the layover track, as well as temporary and permanent station designs,” through 2022. After sharing plans developed with CSX for the station area in February 2023, Amtrak provided a draft land use lease agreement to the city on an unspecified date. But as talks continued intermittently between Amtrak and city officials for the next year — most recently on Feb. 29, 2024 — no agreement was reached.

At the latest meeting, Amtrak assured civic leaders that Mobile’s only financial obligation would be $3.048 million, a total approved by the city council in 2020, for the first three years of service.

“Amtrak is hopeful that [the current] city council will schedule a vote to approve both the land use agreement and funding agreement in April or May 2024,” the report concludes.

Louisiana and Mississippi have previously agreed to fund operations; in part, Mississippi is using a share of Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funds, as Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority does for its Downeaster corridor. But the state of Alabama has not been involved in any agreement up to this point.

The status report notes other concerns are contributing to delays in executing the CRISI grant. These stem from recent changes made by the Federal Railroad Administration in “General” and “Project Specific” terms and conditions during the contracting and compliance process.

Another holdup has been receipt from the FRA of a required “categorical exclusion,” confirming there would be no harmful environmental impact from building a layover track and platform. It couldn’t be requested until 30% design plans for a project were completed; those were not finalized between Amtrak and CSX until mid-January, and that approval is now expected April 26, 2024. Also, the Alabama and tribal historic preservation offices must sign off on a construction monitoring plan.

With uncertainty over Mobile’s financial obligation now resolved, it remains to be seen if other obstacles prevent execution of a lease agreement. A package benefitting CSX, NS, and Port freight operations along with the passenger trains remains delayed, or could possibly be cancelled entirely, without city approval.

Mobile officials previously said they had forwarded a lease to Amtrak in early November 2023 [see “City of Mobile sends lease …,” News Wire, Nov. 6, 2023]. The status report characterizes this as “feedback” to Amtrak’s draft easement agreement first presented months earlier, but does not elaborate on issues that might have been considered a “deal breaker,” preventing its execution.

The Gulf Coast project has exposed the challenges in establishing a passenger corridor, even in the case of a route such as this one that previously hosted Amtrak trains. That’s one reason it has been the subject of extensive STB attention. Establishing a workable blueprint to launch new service is essential, given the FRA’s Corridor ID program, which has provided $500,000 grants to 69 routes nationwide to explore potential new or expanded service. Because many elements necessary to start New Orleans-Mobile service remain unresolved, the parties can expect continued scrutiny from the STB.

17 thoughts on “Gulf Coast impasse at Mobile remains unresolved: Analysis

  1. If this short route cannot be accomplished in reasonable timeframe, how could the recently announce LD plan ever have a chance? The honest answer, is that it does not and those touting the LD plan know this.

  2. This is a sad (red maybe?) state of affairs. A Senator, governor, mayor and city council people make all the decisions about the
    lost tax money this Amtrak service will provide . Given an opportunity, we WILL ride and spend money. Build tax revenue instead of chasing it away!

  3. In the early years of Amtrak the railroads that joined had people familiar with operating passenger service integrated with their freight schedules and requirements. Over the years there have been many changes in technology and the operation of freight services along with significant personnel changes, so that the “barriers to entry” for former passenger routes including governmental requirements are significantly higher. My hunch is that outside of commuter service and northeast corridor service the future of a comprehensive rail passenger network is bleak.

  4. If the city is being such an obstacle, surely there is another parcel of land nearby and adjacent to the ROW where the landowner wouldn’t mind receiving regular rent checks.

  5. Skip the stop in Mobile and restore service to Jacksonville. Then you wouldn’t need a storage track.

  6. The biggest reason that the city of Mobile doesn’t want Amtrak service is political. Most of the city and county council members and the mayor are following our governors anti Amtrak rhetoric. How do I know this, I live here. If trains ever run it’ll be a shock to me.

    1. Well, if it’s that many office holders, the governor, the mayor, and a majority of both local boards, they can’t all be crazy. Could be that some or all of them are onto something.

  7. Better investment would be to restore svc to those routes which have been cut back in the past & have more support from the communities like the The Pioneer, Desert Wind, NC Hiawatha, etc

  8. A microcosm of Amtrak’s failure to run a national system, depending on two factors that just can’t come together and might never: (1) The use of private for-profit railroads for Amtrak trains; and (2) The necessities for states and locals to participate in both capital and operational expenses for a so-called national system.

    Thus the need for hundreds of thousands of dollars to study corridors that aren’t funded. What is being “studied” is how the costs will be apportioned. Actual technical studies, such as switches, station platforms, signals, etc. will be at additional and future expense.

    We who read these pages aren’t ready to give up on Amtrak expansion. But we sure are frustrated.

    1. I’ll ask my grandkids if they’re ready to give up, but I am. Closer to reality, my “almost ready to give up” issue is Amtrak’s perpetual inability to cover the meager routes it currently has, with sufficient equipment and personnel. I don’t have enough years left.

    2. If the formula was “fixed” like the ratios for motor fuel taxes are, for funding, then each attempt wouldnt be a laborious tooth pull. Each “study” would know how much they had in the kitty and compared to the cost of said route.

      Not enough in kitty, no service.

  9. Time to pull the plug, and dump this passenger train idea. Too many obstacles for too many years. Flying is quicker anyway, if you can keep the airplanes together.

    1. Ridiculous, short haul flying is NOT sustainable, should not be seriously suggesting that…

    2. To fly from New Orleans to Mobile you got to either rent a private Jet or fly via Birmingham, Atlanta Memphis or Houston. Probably ride a bicycle faster.

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