Thursday, April 11

Amtrak takes Twitter beef with freight carriers to new level

An ongoing feud between two freight rail companies and Amtrak over restoring passenger service on the Gulf Coast spilled into the open again this week on social media, with Amtrak seemingly attempting to shame its cargo counterparts into submission.

Amtrak claims the freight carriers CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Railway believe the route is too busy with their trains to handle passenger traffic and posted a livestream of the largely idle line, tweeting, “babe wake up, CSX’s fourth gulf coast train since 8 am just dropped.”

Amtrak wants to restore two daily roundtrip trains from Mobile, Alabama, to New Orleans that were closed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

CSX and Norfolk Southern said they would let Amtrak use the tracks if it forked over $440 million for railroad and infrastructure upgrades.

“We are not asking for these infrastructure projects for our own benefit,” said Bryan Tucker, CSX’s vice president of corporate communications. “In order to accommodate the new service that Amtrak wants to run, this is the infrastructure that would ensure that it would not negatively impact the freight service and customers and communities.”

The Surface Transportation Board, a federal oversight agency, has final say on the matter unless either party appeals its eventual decision in court. The board held hearings this week on Amtrak’s request to share the roughly 140 miles of railway with the freight carriers.

The dispute surfaced publicly two weeks ago on social media.

“CSX and NS are fighting to block Amtrak service restoration in the Gulf Coast,” Amtrak Connects US tweeted Feb. 14using fire alarm emojis.

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“You heard that right,” it continued. “The same freight railroad companies that block roads with 3 mile-long trains want veto power over passenger rail expansion.”

It didn’t stop there. Amtrak also livestreamed an empty train stop in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, which is along the route, on Twitch.

Tucker called the posts an “unfortunate gimmick” and a “grossly misleading stunt,” likening it to someone taking a picture of Interstate 95 in rural Georgia and expecting people to assume that’s what it looks like in Washington, DC

“We’re not trying to block Amtrak from instituting new services,” he said. “We just want it done in a responsible and reasonable way.”

Congress created Amtrak with the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970 after more people switched to cars and airplanes in the 1960s as primary modes of travel.

Amtrak took over carrying passengers in exchange for priority access to the private railroads’ tracks at incremental cost, according to the Department of Transportation. Freight carriers were still allowed to operate and maintain the railroads.

“This is fundamentally a case about Congress’ vision for the national passenger rail system and whether private railroads can essentially exercise veto power over that vision by making inordinate capital demands,” said Jessica Amunson, an attorney for Amtrak, during an April 4 hearing.

“Amtrak does not believe that the private railroad should have that power,” she said.

But CSX and Norfolk Southern contend the Amtrak trains would force delays and “cause immediate and significant harm to freight service without infrastructure investments,” they wrote in a Feb. 24 filing to the transportation board.

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“Freight service will be unreasonably impaired by the introduction of passenger service, and Amtrak’s application should therefore be denied,” the carriers wrote.

A CSX Corp. freight train passes through Anchorage, Ky., on Oct. 15, 2017. Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images file

The Federal Railroad Administration, an arm of the US Department of Transportation, told the board in February that it supports Amtrak’s request, noting the Gulf Coast region has been without Amtrak service for nearly two decades.

“It is the American public that suffers when these services are held up,” said administrator Amitabha Bose. “In this case, service delayed is service denied.”

Bose added that the Biden administration has placed an emphasis on expanding and enhancing passenger rail.

Yet Sandy Stimpson, Mayor of Mobile, Alabama, told the board he was concerned about cargo getting stalled at the Port of Mobile, the city’s economic heartbeat.

The port supports at least 160,000 jobs, moves more than 58 million tons of cargo a year and generates about $27 billion in annual economic output, he said.

“Any action that stands in the way of continued efficient and productive operation of the Port of Mobile must be treated with microscopic scrutiny,” he said during the public comment period. “The Port of Mobile is simply too important.”

Ray Atkins, an attorney for CSX, said requests for new passenger trains are typically accompanied by an impact study on freight and passenger service, in addition to a cost analysis.

“The normal industry process here completely fell apart” with Amtrak pulling the plug on the study just months before completion, Atkins said.

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The Association of American Railroads has not taken a stand on the issue, but the president of the Rail Passengers Association, Jim Mathews, said people want Amtrak to be able to use the tracks.

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