Happening Now

STB Could Decide Amtrak Gulf Coast In December

October 28, 2022

By Jim Mathews / President & CEO

The Surface Transportation Board scheduled two potentially final days of evidentiary hearings for November 17th and 18th in Amtrak’s long-running attempt to compel Norfolk Southern and CSX to permit Amtrak to exercise its statutory right to re-start limited service between New Orleans and Mobile, and could even make a final decision on the case on December 7th.

The hearings will be conducted in public, and will include direct- and cross-examination of witnesses from all sides, but in its order released today STB was quick to stipulate that the hearings will be limited to questions related to capacity modeling evidence and other replies filed in July and August after the previous hearings wrapped up in May.

“Because the Board is familiar with the Parties’ filings, the Parties are encouraged to keep any direct examination to a minimum,” the Board ordered. “At no point should the Parties’ direct examination or cross-examination involve evidence that was submitted prior to the conclusion of the hearing on May 12, 2022.”

That means we can expect to hear questions and answers about the capacity modeling around the route and its sufficiency, evidence showing the results of operational changes and infrastructure improvements, and potential effects of the service on customers.

Perhaps in a nod to the seemingly endless stream of filings, claims, pleadings, and arguments, the Board told Amtrak, CSX, Norfolk Southern, and the Port of Alabama that it “expects the evidentiary part of this hearing to be completed within five hours.”

STB’s voting conference on December 7th will be open for public viewing here, but without any participation from the railroads or the Port. At that session, which begins at 2pm, Board members “will discuss among themselves, and may vote on, the outcome of the case.”

They could also choose to delay a vote or make some other kind of decision.

Ever since this stage of the dispute began more than a year ago with Amtrak’s motion asking STB to order host railroads CSX and Norfolk Southern to let Amtrak start its Gulf Coast service, all sides have been squabbling over the credibility of the route modeling CSX and N-S used to claim the new Amtrak service would “unreasonably impair” freight service.

The “unreasonably impair” language is important: that’s the legal standard the host railroads must use to stop new Amtrak service. The law is written to presume that Amtrak’s service will be acceptable unless the hosts can prove it would be bad.

For what it’s worth, it’s not just Amtrak (and your Association) claiming that the modeling doesn’t pass the smell test. In January, the U.S. Dept. of Transportation dropped an unusually forceful amicus brief into the STB’s Gulf Coast restoration docket, declaring flatly that the STB “should order the restoration of the Gulf Coast service” and undercutting much of the evidence the two railroads submitted.

DOT told the Board that the host railroads’ operational analyses submitted as evidence were “insufficient” to prove that adding two trains each day to the area would “impair unreasonably” the freight transportation offered by the hosts.

The posture DOT adopted in its filing mirrors many of the arguments your Association has been making for some time – that the host railroads are acting in bad faith to block Gulf Coast restoration, that Congress has always intended that host railroads must affirmatively prove that new service will harm their operations, and that the host railroads continue to benefit each and every year from the “Grand Bargain” they struck in 1971 with the U.S. taxpayer, who pays some $2 billion every year to relieve the railroads of their common-carrier obligations in exchange for access to tracks and infrastructure.