Rocky Mountain Trucking LLC

Some level of Amtrak passenger rail service could be established on the Gulf Coast, based on a recent filing submitted to the Surface Transportation Board.

In a joint filing Monday, Amtrak, CSX (NASDAQ: CSX), Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) and the Alabama State Port Authority said they “have agreed to settlement terms that, when fully implemented, will lead to a complete resolution of this proceeding.” They had asked the board to hold off on a Nov. 30 hearing on Amtrak’s plans to restore Gulf Coast service between Mobile, Alabama, and New Orleans because the parties have a potential settlement within sight. The parties also asked STB to hold off on a voting conference for the proceeding that had been scheduled for Dec. 7.

STB agreed to the parties’ request to postpone the hearing, according to a late Tuesday announcement.

The potential settlement, reached with the assistance of board-sponsored mediators, is subject to several conditions that aren’t entirely within the parties’ control, so Amtrak’s request might need to be reinstated in case the conditions aren’t met, the filing continued. 

The parties will submit a joint status report to STB before June 30, 2023, if the terms of the settlement have not yet been fulfilled. 

The parties declined to elaborate what the conditions are that could facilitate the settlement, and portions of the filing were redacted.

In a joint statement to FreightWaves, they said: “We have collectively reached an agreement to support passenger and freight service in the Gulf Coast corridor. The parties filed a motion today informing the Surface Transportation Board that a settlement agreement has been reached and asking that the case be held in abeyance while the parties execute the various conditions of that settlement agreement. Due to the confidential nature of the settlement agreement, the parties are not able to provide further comment on its terms at this time.”

Amtrak has sought to set up Gulf Coast service between the two Southern cities as early as this year or next, but CSX, NS and the Alabama State Port Authority were concerned that not enough study had been conducted on how much passenger rail service could affect freight rail service, particularly since activity at the Port of Mobile has increased significantly in recent years.

The board held a hearing on Amtrak’s request in February, and additional evidentiary hearings began in April and ran for several weeks.

Interest in Amtrak’s proceeding spread beyond the Gulf Coast to Midwestern and Northern cities and localities interested in establishing passenger rail service through their regions using the existing freight rail network. Observers viewed the proceeding as an indicator of how STB and the federal government might handle such requests.

In response to the potential settlement, STB Chariman Marty Oberman said in a release: “The Board appreciates the successful efforts of Amtrak, CSX, NS, and the Port to settle this important case. I particularly want to acknowledge the significant progress that has been made in achieving a settlement under the new leadership of CSX and NS, which I expect brought a fresh constructive approach to resolving the matter. 

“The Board has stated many times our strong preference for private parties to operate in good faith and to amicably resolve disputes on their own whenever possible to obviate the need for Board action. The settlement of this case will hasten the return of passenger rail operations in the Gulf. This will result in a substantial public benefit by providing a public transportation option for Gulf Coast residents and visitors alike and will have a very positive impact on the economy of the region. I look forward to the parties informing us of the specific infrastructure improvements that will be made to the rail network as a result of the settlement.”

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