Federal Board Ponders Future Of Gulf Coast Passenger Trains

FILE - This file photo shows passengers boarding an Amtrak train heading to New Orleans from Atlanta on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016. A federal board is hearing testimony on whether to let Amtrak resume passenger train service linking New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, over the objections of freight companies. A hearing began Monday, April 4, 2022 before the Surface Transportation Board. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
FILE - This file photo shows passengers boarding an Amtrak train heading to New Orleans from Atlanta on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016. A federal board is hearing testimony on whether to let Amtrak resume passenger train service linking New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, over the objections of freight companies. A hearing began Monday, April 4, 2022 before the Surface Transportation Board. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

A federal board began hearing testimony Monday on whether to let Amtrak resume passenger train service linking New Orleans and Alabama's main port city over the objections of freight companies.

The hearing, conducted virtually by the Surface Transportation Board, will help determine whether the government railroad can once again offer passenger transportation on a section of the northern Gulf Coast where Amtrak hasn't operated since Hurricane Katrina caused extensive damage in 2005.

Freight haulers CSX and Norfolk Southern Railway, in conjunction with the Alabama State Port Authority, contend Amtrak's plan to run twice-daily, round-trip trips between New Orleans and Mobile would interfere with their traffic and create problems at the Alabama state docks in Mobile. Amtrak should have to make as much as $440 million in improvements before running passenger trains, they argue.

Amtrak asked the board to allow passenger trains to begin operating immediately and decide later on what kinds of infrastructure changes are needed. Freight companies are being unreasonable because they don't want to make any changes to their schedules or operations, Amtrak attorney Jessie Amunson said.

Railroad operations are more complicated on the Gulf Coast than anywhere else in the country because of the large amount of water and the complexity of rail switching operations in New Orleans, a major hub linking Eastern and Western railroads, said Charlie Banks, a management consultant testifying for CSX and Norfolk Southern

Adding passenger trains along the roughly 137-mile (220-kilometer) route would cause “serious degradations” to rail transportation on the coast, he said.

“It is an extremely challenging territory even just to operate fright trains, let alone Amtrak,” Banks said.

But Amunson said Congress already has established the importance of reestablishing passenger service in the region and argued it was time to move ahead after years of studies and negotiations.

“Enough is enough,” she said.

Board chair Martin Oberman said the panel had plenty of studies and statistics about the potential impact of resuming passenger train service but must determine what's reasonable under the law.

“We’ve got lots of metrics. We don’t know what to put them up against,” he said.

With testimony taking longer than anticipated, the hearing ended for the day with plans to resume Tuesday. Lawyers discussed the possibility that the hearing could last into next week.

Amtrak has been trying to resume passenger rail service on the Gulf Coast since 2015, according to the Southern Rail Commission. The board last year dismissed objections from CSX and Norfolk Southern Railway and let Amtrak continue with its attempt to gain access to freight lines for passenger trains.