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Amtrak warns freight merger could derail New England expansion plans

Amtrak offers a promising vision for the future of train travel in New England: a new route connecting Concord, N.H., with Boston; expanded service in Maine; more frequent trips between Albany and Boston that could be the makings of the long-awaited East-West Rail.

Sounds great, right? Sure, Amtrak needs some money to pull it off. Maybe the infrastructure proposal being batted around in D.C. could help with that.

But Amtrak points to something else that could derail this ambitious dream: the pending merger between freight railroad operators CSX and Pan Am.

Ten days before releasing the details of its “Connect US” plan, Amtrak filed a letter of opposition on May 17 to the CSX-Pan Am deal with the Surface Transportation Board. Amtrak says the merger “poses a grave threat” to its goals. And CEO Bill Flynn called it nothing less than “a significant threat to the American traveling public.”

The dispute underscores the tenuous relationships that passenger railroads such as Amtrak and the MBTA often have with freight carriers that control many of the lines. The passenger railroads don’t want delays. The freight railroads don’t want to disappoint their industrial customers. It’s a recipe for conflict.

The freight railroad system largely stays out of the public eye, at least when it’s running smoothly. CSX, Pan Am, and their peers quietly power the economy, moving everything from lumber to fertilizer to crushed stone. And they share their vast rail networks with passenger trains, sometimes begrudgingly.

CSX argues that service will improve with its Pan Am acquisition, with infrastructure upgrades bound to come down the line. The Florida-based company is much larger than Billerica-based Pan Am. (The smaller company, then known as Guilford Transportation Industries, bought the once-high-flying Pan Am airline’s brand in the late 1990s.)

In the Nov. 30 announcement of the deal, CSX boasted of its ability to make massive capital investments, which totaled $1.5 billion in 2019 alone. The merger, if approved by the Surface Transportation Board, would unite CSX’s 3,500 miles of track in the Northeast, out of a total of 19,500 in North America, with Pan Am’s 1,200 miles, and CSX would also get a stake in a Pan Am joint venture that controls another 600 miles. CSX would bulk up in Massachusetts, upstate New York, and Connecticut, and enter Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire.

CSX did an admirable job of lining up cheerleaders. The support letters are piling up in the Surface Transportation Board’s files like rush-hour commuters at South Station. Well wishes are coming from manufacturers, logistics companies, and the like, all banking on line upgrades.

Some high-profile names broke out their bullhorns. Senator Susan Collins of Maine likes the promise of positive train control braking equipment for the tracks in Maine. The Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce’s chief executive, Tim Murray, whose city is home to a major CSX hub, predicts improved performance for the Pan Am lines under its would-be buyer: higher speeds, faster turns, greater consistency.

New Hampshire’s governor, Chris Sununu, waved his pompoms, too. Sununu doesn’t mention Amtrak’s plans to bring trains to Concord and Manchester in his May 14 letter to the Surface Transportation Board. But he does point to the promise of efficiencies, fewer handoffs between separate rail carriers, and the possibility of replacing trucks with trains for freight shipping in his home state.

Not everyone is jumping on the pro-CSX train. The MBTA and its sister agency, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, continued to express serious concerns in March about the deal. In particular, state officials said CSX and Pan Am failed to provide an adequate protocol to protect against freight interference with the MBTA’s commuter operations, and to protect the Wachusett Reservoir, whose western edge is traversed by CSX tracks. A spokeswoman says the Baker administration is still discussing its concerns with CSX.

Then there’s Amtrak’s ominous warnings. The Pan Am network deserves attention in part because tens of millions in federal and state grants were spent on improvements, an “unprecedented” public investment, at least according to Amtrak. Here’s something else that Amtrak calls unprecedented: the funding the Biden administration has promised for intercity passenger rail service. After all, it was the arrival of “Amtrak Joe” in the White House that prompted the carrier to roll out its “Connect US” plan.

It is just a theory for now. Amtrak needs $75 billion over 15 years to pay for everything. But if you believe in the promise of rail travel, that theory sure looks promising.

Consider these proposed local improvements: the expansion of the Downeaster in Maine, a commuter train from Boston to Manchester and Concord with five daily round trips, and new service between Albany and Boston, including a stop in Springfield. All this, Amtrak warns, is at risk if CSX takes over Pan Am, particularly if it expands freight service in the region.

As an example of what could go wrong in New England, Amtrak points to its beef with CSX along the Gulf Coast, where the companies are at odds over how to restore passenger train service between New Orleans and Mobile, Ala., after it was disrupted in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. CSX wants to slow the ride toward passenger service restoration, to protect existing freight customers. Amtrak wants to bring back passengers at full speed ahead.

In New England, a CSX spokeswoman says her company will increase spending on the region’s rail infrastructure should the Pan Am deal go through, enhancing reliability and safety for freight and passenger trains alike. It’s unfortunate, she said, that Amtrak would stand in the way of these benefits based on unfounded concerns.

Despite all the support letters, the Surface Transportation Board is clearly giving this deal more scrutiny than executives at Pan Am and CSX wanted or expected. The STB kicked the merger plan back to them last month, saying in its rejection memo that a more in-depth market analysis is needed. CSX plans to submit that revised application this week.

Will the Surface Transportation Board eventually take Amtrak’s side and knock the merger off its track? That’s still not clear. But the merger will undoubtedly have a significant impact on passenger service in New England. Whether that impact is good or bad depends on who happens to be sitting in the engineer’s seat when you ask.

This article originally appeared on Boston Globe

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