Gulf Coast Passenger Rail A Test

Gulf Coast Passenger Rail A Test

You used to be able to ride the train from New Orleans to Jacksonville on Amtrak’s Sunset Limited line. But in 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the track, and the line hasn’t operated for passenger rail since. While service for people hasn’t resumed, freight companies have continued using the line. Now, Amtrak’s attempt to reinstate passenger service twice a day between Mobile, Alabama, and New Orleans is getting resistance from two of those freight companies (CSX and Norfolk Southern) who argue that it will create supply chain issues. Last week, hearings resumed before the US Surface Transportation Board (STB) over who gets to use the track.

Fiscal watchdogs have expressed concern, such as the president of Taxpayers Protection Alliance David Williams, who stated, "For taxpayers, it doesn’t make any sense because Amtrak is so heavily subsidized and the numbers just don’t show that this will be a profitable route for Amtrak.”

Assistant Vice President Host Railroads at Amtrak, Jim Blair testified that projections for the Gulf Coast line in 2022 ridership at fewer than 25,000 passengers, a net taxpayer subsidy of $336 per rider.

Still, the Biden Administration remains actively supportive of Amtrak’s move. To the STB, Department of Transportation’s Office of the General Counsel John Punam stated, "[T]he restoration of Gulf Coast service plays an essential role in meeting the most important objectives of our transportation system, including combating climate change…”

Taxpayers Protection Alliance: STB Hearing on Amtrak Gulf Coast | Ridership Projection and Loss Per Passenger from Amtrak, May 12, 2022.

Why This Matters

Re-establishing service from New Orleans to cities due east would give people a way to travel without getting on the highway. Given that the transportation sector is responsible for about one-third of US emissions, increasing car-free travel is imperative. But this ruling will have implications beyond the Gulf South. It’s the first time the board has settled a dispute like this, and if the freight companies come out on top, it could prove disastrous for other passenger rail lines. Amtrak only owns a tiny fraction of track (mostly along its northeast corridor) and any expansion of rail service would also be on private track.

"If CSX and Norfolk Southern are successful in blocking this, then dreams of expanded passenger rail will begin to wither and die in every part of the country,” said John Robert Smith, now-chairman of advocacy group Transportation for America and former mayor of Meridian, MS.

A Matter Of Money

Last year’s infrastructure bill included $66 billion for Amtrak, the largest investment in the quasi-public passenger rail service since its founding in 1971. The hope is that the funds will go to expanding service to 160 communities across the country, but the Gulf Coast hearing could foil Amtrak’s ability to use the necessary track to make that happen.

Also at stake in the hearing was the cost of infrastructure upgrades, which the freight companies estimate at $440 million and want Amtrak to pay before any passenger services begin. The freight companies are estimating the cost much higher than the regional governor-appointed Southern Rail Commission, which estimated it would cost $60 million in 2017.

"CSX and NS have painted this caricature that (Amtrak) won’t spend a dime on infrastructure,” said Amtrak attorney Jessica Amunson in response to a question by STB chairman Martin Oberman. "That’s just not true. What Amtrak wants is to start service and have infrastructure investments informed by the actual experience of operating on the line, rather than facing a demand that it build $440 million of infrastructure before it can run a single train.”

T4America: Mobile, AL infrequent freight trains timelapse, February 17, 2022.