By Paul Wilson, Guest Commentator; October 27, 2021
Editor’s Note: We welcome the first commentary contribution from Paul Wilson, a longtime behind-the-scenes strategist for passenger rail issues. Mr. Wilson hails from Ohio, and the University of Virginia. He currently resides in the Washington, D.C. area, where he practices architecture. – Corridorrail.com Editor
The years 2020 and 2021 have been quite a wild ride on America’s Railroad ™, and the thrills promise to continue out on the rails that connect 46 states. With ongoing problems involving equipment shortfalls, extremely limited sleeping car space inventory, and crew shortages, Amtrak management once again finds itself in a mess of its own making, despite being awash in federal COVID “recovery” cash.
A rising tide may lift all boats, but when the tide ebbs, it becomes obvious who’s been swimming naked. The utter collapse of corridor travel during the initial year of the pandemic certainly has revealed the fatal weakness of the corridor travel model, especially one dependent on business travel at premium prices for its revenue stream (i.e., the Acela). Long distance travel also took a hit in mid-2020, but recovered more quickly and from a shallower trough. This has been well documented and is beyond dispute, based on Amtrak’s own Fiscal Year 2021 results.
But what of short haul (and state sponsored) new corridor development, Amtrak’s decades-long white whale obsession? On the horizon is a new “state” Gulf Coast corridor, and with it another opportunity for Amtrak to shake the government-money tree, plus an intensifying fracas over the rail network access it needs to operate.
Here’s the current state of play: In preparation for a twice-daily New Orleans-Mobile service, Amtrak agreed to a traffic study with Norfolk Southern Railway and CSX Transportation in early 2020. It then backed out of this process in February 2021 – perhaps because it sensed the political winds were at its back – and petitioned the Surface Transportation Board to compel CSX and NS to grant access, effective January 1, 2022.
Amtrak demanded this access in exchange for no physical plant improvements whatsoever to CSX’s former L&N line along the coast, and a short segment of NS-owned former Southern Railway track in New Orleans that connects to New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal. Amtrak is plainly eager to begin collecting operating subsidies and equipment charges from the Gulf Coast states.
Amtrak’s initial petition to the STB in Finance Docket 36496, and its various motions and replies are, thus far, surprisingly thin. It mostly consists of political posturing – Amtrak emotes that Mobile has been waiting 15 years for service “restoration.” Would the argument be stronger if it were 16, 17, or 20, or 25? Amtrak has a bevy of current and former elected officials in its corner, especially from Mississippi and Louisiana. Alabama officials generally seem cooler to the idea.
Amtrak risibly claims it now desires to simply “restore” or “resume” service after a post-Hurricane Katrina 16 year hiatus, and that it doesn’t need a traffic study to prove its case – ignoring the plain language of the statute. Even more brazenly Amtrak later moved for summary judgment, declaring that proceedings were not even necessary. After terminating (officially “suspending”) the Sunset Limited East, (six train movements per week between New Orleans and Orlando) now Amtrak asserts that 28 train movements a week New Orleans – Mobile (plus probable additional deadhead moves to layover/service facilities at Mobile) are but mere trifles and that CSX and NS should yield to Amtrak demands. Comparing the pre-Katrina situation to now is not apples-and-oranges, it’s apples-and-bowling balls.
CSX and NS countered. They argued that since the stalled traffic study was incomplete, and because they had not formally denied access, that Amtrak’s petition was not “ripe.”
STB rejected both sweeping claims. The Board (which always has the Court of Appeals looking over its shoulder) directed the parties to present data, studies, future traffic projections, and proposed infrastructure improvement plans. STB is proceeding cautiously. Amtrak “won” in the sense that the Board will hear its petition, but if Amtrak and the Southern Rail Commission (the sponsor) thought they could circumvent the issue of a bona fide traffic study, they were sadly mistaken. When it comes to raw politics, Amtrak’s timing – in the midst of the deepening “supply chain crisis” – is perhaps not the best. One of the major opponents of its scheme is the Port of Mobile.
Amtrak is going to have to put up or shut up at the STB hearings later this year. The statute says the proposed passenger service shall not “unreasonably” impair freight service, absent improvements. The “unreasonable” standard has not been adjudicated before, and the burden of proof lies squarely on Amtrak.
So, it’s far from a slam dunk for Amtrak. They should take more care about the mess they’re creating, as it can only lead inevitably to more hostility to passenger rail expansion nationwide. In the midst of the ongoing On-Time Performance metrics imbroglio, Amtrak is wading into yet another exhausting dispute with the Class 1s. Regardless of what people in D.C. might think, there are some problems that remain impervious to government diktats or aggressive lawyering. The fact that two trains cannot share the same track at the same time is one of those.
Or maybe it’s all a distraction, and one with Machiavellian overtones. Acting more in sorrow than in anger, perhaps Amtrak will conclude that these nascent corridors on the extant freight network are just too hard or the politicians will balk when presented with a bill for STB-mandated improvements. Then there will be nowhere else to spend the federal money than on the NEC, and its $100-billion sinkhole of shovel-readiness.