USA: The Department of Transportation has endorsed efforts to revive inter-city passenger train services on the Gulf Coast route east of New Orleans, which were suspended following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Writing to the Chairman of the Surface Transportation Board Martin Oberman on May 10, DOT Acting General Counsel John Putnam emphasised that ‘the Biden-Harris Administration believes that the expansion and improvement of inter-city passenger rail service, through efforts such as the restoration of Gulf Coast service, plays an essential role in meeting the most important objectives of our transportation system, including combating climate change, ensuring equity in personal mobility, and driving economic growth and vitality.’

Amtrak has been working to restore services on the route since 2015, when Congress convened a Gulf Coast Working Group to evaluate the options. This brought together representatives from the Federal Railroad Administration, Amtrak, the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida and other local authorities, as well as operators CSX, Norfolk Southern and SunRail.

However, the working group was unable to agree on the enhancements necessary to accommodate passenger services on the corridor. FRA estimated the capital investment at around $118m, whereas CSX put the figure at $2·3bn.

Given the lack of consensus, Amtrak, CSX, and Norfolk Southern agreed in early 2020 to undertake a ‘simulation study’ to look at operations on the Gulf Coast route and assess the works required to accommodate two daily round-trips on the 235 km section between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

This work was funded through an FRA grant to Amtrak, but with the participants unable to agree on either the data inputs or the outputs of the model the study was not completed by the scheduled end date in January 2021. According to Puttman, ‘FRA remains concerned that it has been unable to obtain access to all the data and analysis necessary for a proper review of the issues involved in restoring service.

STB application

Amtrak's tri-weekly <i>Sunset Limited</i> was cut back to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Amtrak’s tri-weekly Sunset Limited was cut back to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Explaining that it had been working ‘in good faith’ for five years to reach agreement with the freight railroads, and pointing out that it a legal right to use the route, Amtrak applied to the STB in March to initiate a legal process paving the way for two daily trains to start operating in 2022. Under this procedure, CSX and NS would be required to provide Amtrak with access or ‘prove to the public why they cannot successfully host these trains in accordance with the law’.

In its application, Amtrak argued that the line had sufficient capacity to host its proposed trains, and added that $66m had been committed to fund targeted improvements to support the new inter-city passenger service. According to Putman, FRA has made several ‘significant’ grants totalling $47·6m to support the restoration of the Gulf Coast passenger service, and fund route enhancements, which had been matched by $52·3m in non-federal funding.

‘Unfortunately, despite an extended period of examination and the investment of significant funds, Amtrak has been unable to obtain the agreement of the host freight railroads’, he continued. ’Furthermore, at present, there does not appear to be any clear path forward for resolving these questions, absent the Board’s involvement. We therefore urge the Board to act expeditiously on Amtrak’s application.

‘FRA looks forward to the opportunity to participate in any proceeding that the Board initiates, to ensure that passenger rail service may expand consistent with the law, while robust freight rail service, essential to the nation’s economy, is preserved.’