TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD The Amtrak Inspection Train arrives at the Gulfport Depot, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016.

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The federal board that will determine whether the Gulf Coast gets its Amtrak route back is closer to reaching a decision. 

The Surface Transportation Board issued an order Friday, spelling out questions it wants Amtrak and the freight rail companies to address in its upcoming evidentiary hearing on April 4. Following the latest set of hearing dates, the board is expected to finally make a decision about the route’s future.

Freight company CSX Transportation has been at odds with Amtrak over the proposed train route that would run between New Orleans and Mobile with stops in Mississippi for years. Amtrak trains that once traveled along the Gulf Coast never returned following Hurricane Katrina. A year ago, Amtrak filed a petition with the transportation board to operate the route along the freight-owned railways after failing to reach any agreements with CSX and another freight company that owns tracks along the route. 

In its latest filing, the transportation board asked the freight rail companies and Amtrak to have conversations with the U.S. Coast Guard over the use of drawbridges on the route. The bridges, and whether they can be drawn down and support added traffic from a passenger train, have been one of many of many points of contention and confusion during the debate over the route’s future.

Alabama leadership largely sided with CSX, saying they wanted more studies done on whether added passenger trains would affect the freight trains ability to move product during public hearings last month. Mississippi leaders, such as U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, said Amtrak’s return to the Gulf Coast has been delayed long enough. 

The evidence hearings were first scheduled for March. CSX asked they be postponed. They’re now set to be held virtually on April 4 and 5 with the option of extending to April 7 and 8 as needed. 

Ultimately, the board will decide if the addition of Amtrak routes would unreasonably affect the freight companies that run 11 trains on that set of railroad per day. Amtrak’s legal right to operate its proposed two-train route on freight-owned tracks comes from a 1970s agreement that reprieved freight companies from providing public transportation. 

The transportations board’s decision on the Gulf Coast will likely set a precedent for other passenger train access cases across the country. 

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