A hearing into the status of Amtrak service between Mobile and New Orleans is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., according to a filing Tuesday by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board.
The STB’s plan to move forward with the hearing comes less than one week after the parties involved in a 2022 settlement agreement requested the federal agency cancel it.
The STB is now requesting the parties involved in the proposed agreement before them – Amtrak, CSX Transportation, Norfolk Southern, and the Alabama State Port Authority – attend, and provide an update on the implementation of a confidential agreement that includes a vow for Amtrak to resume service along the Gulf Coast for the first time since 2005.
The board also invited the City of Mobile to participate, “if it so chooses.”
Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson, in a letter to the STB’s chairman Thursday, said that no one with city be attending.
The city is not a part of the lawsuit, though its leaders including Stimpson have strongly vocalized support for the Port Authority. The Port, prior to the settlement agreement, were strong opponents to Amtrak’s return to the route.
“The City of Mobile is appreciative of your invitation to attend the hearing on February 14, but must decline,” Stimpson said. “As it stands, the City of Mobile and Amtrak are involved in forward moving negotiations on a weekly basis. Once we have reached an agreement we will be more than happy to provide the board with a status update.”
Maggie Oliver, a spokeswoman with the Port Authority, said that “everyone involved in this process is working toward the same goal, including the STB.” She said the Port continues to facilitate discussions with elected officials “in support of the implementation of this project in Mobile, and looks forward in reiterating this commitment at the hearing.”
Marc Magliari, spokesman with Amtrak, said they also “appreciate the board’s continuing interest in establishing new service between New Orleans and Mobile” and that they look forward to participating.
CSX is also looking forward to “participating in the hearing.”
“CSX remains committed and has been working cooperatively with the other parties to advance the Gulf Coast passenger service,” according to statement from CSX Transportation to AL.com.
A Norfolk Southern spokesperson declined comment.
The STB’s hearing notice acknowledges the Feb. 1, status report in which the parties involved in the agreement asked the STB for no hearing take place. But the hearing notice does not address any of the issues raised in the six-page Feb. 1 filing.
That Feb. 1 filing by Amtrak, CSX Transportation, Norfolk Southern and the Alabama State Port Authority, claimed that execution of a $175 million federal grant is “proceeding well,” and that the lengthy case before the STB over the fate of the Amtrak service could be dismissed by May 1.
The hearing before the STB will mark the first time the federal body will be engaged on the Gulf Coast project since the settlement agreement happened in November 2022, more than 15 months ago.
The Feb. 1, filing also illustrated a lease agreement that needs to be addressed in Mobile, including a train station that “must be completed” before twice-day service between New Orleans and Mobile can resume for the first time since 2005. The service will include twice-daily stops in four coastal Mississippi cities: Pascagoula, Biloxi, Gulfport, and Bay St. Louis.
The filing did not provide an update on a cost-sharing plan with the City of Mobile. That proposal could be a hurdle because any financial outlay approved in Mobile requires at least five of seven votes from the city council. At least two council members have publicly expressed doubts or concerns about the project or Amtrak service in general.
While Mississippi and Louisiana are contributing to the project, the State of Alabama has declined to do so.
Amtrak and representatives with the Southern Rail Commission, shortly after the 2022 settlement – much of what was confidential – indicated the rail service would resume in 2023. The service is now believed to resume sometime later this year.
Frustrations have been expressed on the slow process, and some of the blame has been directed at Mobile.
Jim Mathews, president and CEO with Rail Passengers Association – a Washington, D.C. non-profit that advocates for passenger rail service nationwide – told AL.com in December that “everyone is disappointed” with the lack of progress, and that he felt opponents including the freight rails were attempting to “run out the clock” on the project.
At Mobile city council meetings, there have been no discussions about Amtrak and no one from the public has raised any concerns about the delays during public meetings.
An Amtrak station in Mobile requires the completion of a lease agreement between Mobile and Amtrak over the use of property in downtown Mobile at the foot of Government Street at Water Street and near Cooper Riverside Park. Amtrak is set to fund the project separate from projects that are supported by the $178 million federal Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) grant awarded by the Federal Railroad Administration toward the project in September.
Amtrak, in the Feb. 1 filling, recognized that it will take the council’s support to get the land lease approved.
The Gulf Coast lawsuit remains a high-stakes case before the STB. For the first time in its 27-year history, the board is involved in determining the control of a U.S. rail line pitting Amtrak against freight operators.
At the crux of the issue is whether a mandate established in 1971 should continue to require freight railroads to give passenger trains access to rail tracks in the U.S. During testimony in early 2022, experts said the Gulf Coast case could set a precedence for Amtrak’s operations nationwide because it mostly operates on tracks owned by freight companies.
This story was updated at 4:43 p.m. on Feb. 8, 2024, with a statement from Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson. It was updated at 8:27 p.m. on Feb. 8, 2024, with a statement from the Port Authority.