News & Reviews News Wire Gulf Coast testimony confirms modeling did not explore operating changes: Analysis

Gulf Coast testimony confirms modeling did not explore operating changes: Analysis

By Bob Johnston | April 18, 2022

| Last updated on March 18, 2024

By mutual agreement, looks at impact of shorter freight trains, remote bridge operations are excluded from evidence

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Blue and yellow locomotive waiting on siding, as seen from train on main line
A CSX local waits on an industry lead at Harbin, Miss., on Feb. 18, 2016, as Amtrak’s Gulf Coast Inspection train passes. CSX’s infrastructure plan is to convert the passing siding at left to the main track so switching can take place on the siding. Bob Johnston

WASHINGTON — Two days of testimony that made up the second week of the Surface Transportation Board’s hearing on Amtrak Gulf Coast service delved into the intricacies of traffic modeling and its data inputs, and made clear both that Amtrak had no role in that modeling, and that consideration of changes to freight operations were not part of the process.

Mark Dingler, senior project manager for consulting firm HNTB, testified during both the April 12 and 14 sessions. His testimony revealed plenty of collaboration among consultants and host railroad personnel.

But Amtrak was not involved, as it had been when the Rail Traffic Controller modeling was used to determine possible infrastructure work needed for passenger service expansion on CSX’s Washington-Richmond, Va., corridor or extensions over Norfolk Southern in Virginia to Roanoke and Norfolk.

The hearing, originally scheduled for four days or less, is set to begin its seventh day today (Monday, April 18) at 9:30 a.m. EDT, with an eighth day on Tuesday, April 19. If the hearing is not finished Tuesday, it will resume May 11.

Modeling followed ‘standard practice’

Dingler explained in direct questioning by CSX attorney Ray Atkins and STB members  that it is “standard practice” to not test changes in schedules or train length. He says some infrastructure investment decisions only marginally impact operations, such as flipping the passing and main tracks at Harbin, Miss., so switching of a customer could be handled from the siding.

Otherwise, information such as weeks of 2019 dispatcher data, and interviews with supervisors about yard movements encroaching on the main line, are randomized in 30 “seeds,” or variations depicting two-week periods. These are developed with and without passenger trains, with the proposed infrastructure package added to 2019 data, as well as that projected for 2039 using a 1.5% annual traffic growth rate.

Changing view on New Orleans project

The consultant says 11 of the 14 original projects were needed before any passenger service could begin, but changed his mind about the New Orleans’ Back Belt “freight lead extension.” In testimony, both Dingler and Larry Guthrie of R.L. Banks and Associates, called as a Norfolk Southern witness on Thursday, said the $80 million, 12,000-foot track was deemed necessary after a site visit confirmed it could be built.

Because new track would have to be built next to a canal and five highway overpasses added in an urban area, cost was the original reason it was left off of the project list. However, the RTC model showed its addition would significantly reduce delays on NS and CSX interchange moves with Union Pacific, Kansas City Southern, Canadian National, and BNSF Railway.

The 2017 Gulf Coast Working Group report to Congress and CSX’s HDR study from 2016  which recommended $2.2 billion of New Orleans-Jacksonville improvements, did little more than mention the impact of adding passenger trains to this short urban segment. But that was before longer trains that are part of Precision Scheduled Railroading operating practices changed the dynamic.. Board member Karen Hedlund’s questions continue to explore whether or not this “add on” investment would principally benefit freight carriers in an already very congested setting.

What kind of ‘impairment?’

Members also wondered how many of infrastructure needs based on the modeling’s random movements involved decisions that were actually controllable — which could matter as the board presumably must differentiate between what could be characterized as permissible “reasonable impairment” and the “unreasonable impairment” that railroads claim will result from the addition of Amtrak trains.

CSX Attorney Atkins did reveal that HNTB’s Dingler had, in fact, run RTC iterations with both shorter trains and drawbridges controlled by tenders at a remote location. (Hi-rail movements taking bridge tenders to and from their work sites are among the traffic included in the modeling.) Because this happened after original and rebuttal submissions to the board had been finalized, attorneys for all parties agreed the results of these operational changes would not be made public. In any case, even the slightest adjustments to proposed Amtrak schedules were never considered.

STB Chairman Martin Oberman noted that although this evidence was withheld, “the board may have some questions about other RTC modeling.” He expressed interest in seeing Dingler’s discarded “draft” runs with different variables, but the CSX and NS attorneys argued that this was privileged “work product” and therefore not admissible.

The hearing today and Tuesday — set to feature testimony and cross-examination of witnesses for the Port of Mobile and Amtrak — will be live streamed on the STB YouTube channel, which also features recordings of the six previous ceremonies.

7 thoughts on “Gulf Coast testimony confirms modeling did not explore operating changes: Analysis

  1. That is a great quote Charles. I liked LBJ, I wish we had politicians of his caliber nowadays, we would have a different country where things get done.

  2. Pretty ballsy of CSX and NS to intentionally keep so-called “privileged work product” away from their federal regulator. I wouldn’t be able to keep professional composure if I was in Oberman’s shoes and those clowns said that to me.

    1. Brian of course you can’t see the privileged work because it may show that Amtrak may be able to run trains with out very many changes or adding much to the infrastructure.

    2. Or, as the late Lyndon Baines Johnson has been quoted as saying, “Don’t p…. on my leg and tell me it’s raining”.

    3. LBJ must have been one helluva guy! I think that’s my favorite quote of him.

  3. “that it is “standard practice” to not test changes in schedules or train length.”

    Of course it doesn’t because we will gladly take the taxpayers dough to add sidings and switches, but don’t ask us to change a darn thing. In other words if Amtrak wants to run, you (the Feds) have to make us 100% whole so we don’t have to change anything or anyway we do things.

    Class 1 arrogance at its peak unfortunately. The only other company that gets away with this is AT&T through the Rural Internet Access Tax on everyones cell phone bills.

    Hey uh, CSX, that little law in the Amtrak Act? Remember that? Wake up.

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