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U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker kicked off what would be more than 70 speakers testifying over the disputed Gulf Coast passenger route before a federal board on Tuesday.
“Restoration of this vital service is long overdue,” Wicker told the Surface Transportation Board over Zoom. “The impact of Hurricane Katria is still being felt … one of the victims that remains is passenger rail across the Gulf Coast.”
The board is tasked with deciding the future of a public train route that would run between Mobile and New Orleans, with four stops in Mississippi. Passenger train stops on the Gulf Coast were never restored following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, although the freight rail companies that own the affected tracks long ago repaired and replaced them.
After years of debate over use of the railways and attempts to create a plan, Amtrak filed a complaint with the transportation board asking its members to mediate and make a decision about the future of the proposed route.
Members of the Southern Rail Commission, which conducted feasibility studies as the region’s champion for railways, have long accused freight company CSX of stonewalling any progress.
Typically private rail companies and Amtrak reach use agreements outside of the courtroom-style hearings.
Testimonies regarding the route during Tuesday’s hearing came primarily from Alabama and Mississippi officials but also included leaders from as far as Pennsylvania and Oregon.
“The board’s decision will have far implications beyond the Gulf Coast,” Amit Bose, the administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration in the Department of Transportation, said during his testimony. “We believe it’s imperative that host railroads fulfill their fundamental statutory obligations to allow the expansion and improvement of intercity rail services.”
The railroad industry at large is watching the case closely, as it could set precedent for the future of passenger rail expansion across the country.
Despite Bose and DOT’s support of the Gulf Coast route, Alabama leaders have largely sided with freight rail companies that have said more studies are needed to test the capacity of the tracks.
Passenger railroad advocates have called this a strategy of death by delay. CSX, the main company involved, says it isn’t opposed to a new route as long as it doesn’t negatively impact freight – also but says more studies are needed to conclude that.
Alabama officials, like Alabama House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, testified concerns that the country’s existing supply chain issues could be worsened by added train traffic. Alabama relies on freight companies’ use of the Port of Mobile as an economic boon.
Amtrak’s proposed route would stretch over 200 miles and have two trains running round trips — once in the morning and once in the evening. All but about 50 miles of that route runs through Mississippi with stops in Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi and Pascagoula.
Amtrak made its filing with the transportation board in March 2021. Next month – a full year later – the board will hold what it called an evidentiary hearing, which will give Amtrak and CSX a chance to make their cases before the board reaches a decision.