BAY ST. LOUIS – Marc Magilari leaned against a railing at a community civic center, perched above the railway as a CSX freight train roared by.
It was the fourth train to come through Bay St. Louis that Wednesday, just after 4 p.m. Magilari, a spokesman for Amtrak, and a small camera had been keeping watch since 8 a.m. to survey the train traffic. It rolled footage of hours of empty tracks live on Twitch.
In a railroad beef that’s been building for years, Amtrak has turned to live streams, snarky tweets and time lapse videos to help prove its point: Passenger and freight trains can coexist on the railways that run through Mississippi from Mobile to New Orleans.
“We can help people in this town,” Magilari said during his Bay St. Louis visit. “That’s why we’re here.”
Amtrak wants to expand access to public transportation. CSX and other freight companies say the addition of passengers at this time could heighten supply chain issues and harm businesses relying on the Port of Mobile.
Freight company officials say Mississippi’s railway corridor is congested; that Amtrak is over simplifying obstacles; and that the repairs and updates needed to accommodate passenger trains will cost taxpayers upwards of $400 million. In a statement, CSX called Amtrak’s and others live videos misleading.
Amtrak contends that CSX’s explanations are largely scare or delay tactics because the transport company doesn’t want passenger rail to expand on its tracks, even if federal law says they’re supposed to share. It also disputes CSX’s hefty repair and update estimate. The project already has $66 million in secured funding.
The back-and-forth – which has been near constant since 2015 and beyond – is why a federal board has been tasked to find the truth and make a decision about the route’s future. Amtrak wants to run two round-trip trains between Mobile and New Oreleans – one in the morning and one in the evening – with four stops in Mississippi.
The Surface Transportation Board, a body of transportation experts selected by the president and approved by congress, entered its second week of an evidentiary hearing over the Gulf Coast route dispute on Tuesday morning. The hearing is based in Washington, D.C. but being live streamed to the public.
It’s not just Gulf Coast leaders and Amtrak watching closely. The debate has turned into a test case that experts say could dictate the future of railroad expansion across the United States.
By law, Amtrak can run passenger trains on tracks owned by a freight company as long as it doesn’t “unreasonably impair” businesses. The law stems from a 1970s agreement – often called the “great bargain” – between struggling railroad companies that needed debt forgiven and the federal government.
The board is litigating what constitutes “unreasonable” impacts on business for the first time. And that definition could affect the 160 other communities Amtrak wants to grow or restore service to as part of its “Amtrak Connects” plan, as they would all share tracks with freight companies.
Experts have said its unlikely freight rail companies will let up on the fight easily since Amtrak first filed a complaint with the board over a year ago.
“This is their Waterloo,” said Thomas “Todd” Stennis, an Amtrak senior manager from Gulfport.
In the second 8-hour day of the hearing last week, CSX’s legal team began laying what seemed to be the groundwork for an argument to appeal the board’s pending decision.
In a statement to Mississippi Today, CSX said it doesn’t comment on legal strategies.
CSX attorney Raymond Atkins – who was once the transportation board’s own lawyer – told the board last week that some of their questions of a witness could be veering into advocacy.
“This is a unique case where you’re charged by congress and stepping into the role of a judge and you can overstep those bounds if your questioning is too partisan or too extensive,” Atkins said, referencing case law examples of decisions being overturned.
Board chair Martin Oberman disagreed, saying while CSX’s team could continue to object to questions, he and other board members wouldn’t change how they were questioning witnesses.
Oberman said that, if anything, not asking questions to get facts that make the record as robust as possible could leave room for the future decision to be overturned.
“We are not a court, we are not a jury,” Martin said during the hearing. “We have some similarities to those bodies but we are an administrative agency with an obligation to protect the freight network to ensure the law is enforced in regards to the passenger rail network with a very broad and important public interest.”
Public transportation advocates like Jim Matthews, the CEO of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, said it’s likely CSX will appeal a ruling that’s in favor of Amtrak.
“But I think the (board) is doing an excellent job,” Matthews said. “And that bodes well for passenger rail because it makes an appeal based on the merits likely to fail.”
But an appeal, regardless of its success or failure, would likely mean even more waiting for a region that hasn’t had access to an Amtrak route since 2005.
“We’re not giving up,” Magilari said.
After Amtrak’s live stream in Bay. St. Louis, Transportation for America – an advocacy group – posted a time-lapse video out of Pascagoula.
The group’s camera ran from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. and captured seven trains, with a bridge moving up and down to accommodate each train. Like Amtrak, the advocacy group argues train traffic over this stretch of about 150 miles of railway isn’t excessive.
CSX says that focusing on one point on the route doesn’t show the full scope of the corridor.
“Purporting that it is indicative of the operational realities of the entire line is grossly misleading,” CSX said in a statement. “Anyone that understands railroad operations, including Amtrak, would know that.”
CSX says it averages eight to 10 through trains (that make limited stops), one to three coal and giant trains and “numerous local trains” on the track each day.
While the board could make a ruling that calls for the parties to go to mediation to solve the access quarrel, that route seems unlikely given how little the parties can agree on historically. A spokesman for the board said there is no mandated timeline they have to follow once the hearing is over to announce their decision.
The board has made it clear it takes the weight of the case seriously. The hearings were first scheduled to only last a week, but by the end of day one it was clear it would stretch beyond that. As of Tuesday, April 14, 18 and 19 were scheduled as hearing dates.
Correction 4/13/22: This story has been updated to reflect the correct amount of funding already secured for the Amtrak route.
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