A federal board has ruled freight rail company CSX must share previously unseen traffic data with Amtrak as the two move toward mediation over the future of the proposed Gulf Coast train route.
The Surface Transportation Board’s ruling came Friday and calls for CSX to grant Amtrak access to materials the freight company had designated as “highly confidential.” Amtrak needs that information to create traffic studies to show the impacts a proposed passenger train could have on the route.
The board is asking all parties – including Amtrak and CSX – to file traffic studies as evidence and ordered them to meet with a mediator.
“All parties should have the opportunity to fully respond to the evidentiary issues raised at the hearing,” said Chairman Martin J. Oberman. “It is also the Board’s intent to have a full and complete record in such an important matter that affects the public interest.”
The board decided Amtrak was at a disadvantage to produce meaningful traffic studies without the once-protected freight train data. The new traffic reports need to be filed with the board by July 13.
Amtrak has been pushing for a Gulf Coast train route that will connect Mobile to New Orleans with four stops in Mississippi for years. Amtrak stopped running through Mississippi following Hurricane Katrina. Last March, it filed a complaint with the Surface Transportation Board over the route, accusing freight companies of stalling any meaningful negotiations.
Freight company officials say Mississippi’s railway corridor is congested and Amtrak is over simplifying obstacles. CSX officials also said that the repairs and updates needed to accommodate passenger trains will cost taxpayers upwards of $400 million.
“Amtrak appreciates the Board’s continued efforts to instill transparency into this process and will work to meet the board’s new deadline,” said spokesperson Marc Magliari. “We will also work with the mediator the Board appoints and continue our preparations for beginning this service along the Gulf Coast as soon as possible.”
The board says the mediation period will be no more than 30 days, beginning on the date of the first session.
The mediation order comes after weeks of public hearings.
By law, Amtrak can run passenger trains on tracks owned by a freight company as long as it doesn’t “unreasonably impair” businesses. Whether the Amtrak route – which would run a morning and evening train – would be “unreasonable” was at the core of the public hearings and will be addressed by the traffic studies the board requested.
“CSX appreciates the STB’s decision to order Board-sponsored mediation and looks forward to working with the appointed mediator and all parties towards a reasonable and amicable solution,” the company said in a statement.