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An Obstacle to Amtrak Expansion That Money Won’t Solve

WASHINGTON — More than a decade ago, Hurricane Katrina washed away many of the railroad tracks that line the Gulf Coast, leaving the region without a regular route to carry passengers.

Now, Amtrak is trying to restore service in the area, but the effort has stalled after bitter clashes with freight rail companies, which control most of the tracks the agency uses outside the Northeast. At the heart of the rancor is the meaning of a law governing which side has priority over use of the tracks and when, a longstanding battle that has spilled into the courts and onto social media. The outcome, experts say, has broader implications for Amtrak’s future.

The conflict underscores a persistent challenge for Amtrak. Although the infrastructure deal the Biden administration reached with a bipartisan group of senators last week would help fulfill the agency’s elusive goal of expanding across the nation, one of the biggest obstacles would be negotiating with private freight rail companies.

The issue is coming to the fore as lawmakers seek to pass a crucial part of President Biden’s agenda that would inject billions in federal money to bolster the United States’ aging public works system. Under the bill, $66 billion in new funding would go to rail, which includes money to help Amtrak expand nationwide and address its maintenance backlog.

In a statement released shortly after the Senate voted to take up the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, Amtrak welcomed the investment but also urged lawmakers to guarantee that it had better access to the tracks to allow for more reliable service.

“While this funding is a fantastic start,” it said, “we call on Congress to also ensure that Amtrak gets the on-time performance and preference from our host railroads that the law requires.”

The arrangement dates to 1971, when Amtrak was formed to relieve freight railroads from operating passenger trains, a money-losing enterprise. Under the law, Amtrak pays the private companies to use the tracks, as long as its trains are given access and preference. In practice, however, Amtrak says that delays are common and that freight railroads face few consequences if they neglect the law. Freight companies contend that as long as they sufficiently meet performance standards, they are adhering to the law, balancing Amtrak’s needs with their own and careful to make sure that accommodating the agency does not come at their own expense.

Even if Congress approves the infrastructure measure, transportation experts point to the tension between Amtrak and freight rail companies as a major hurdle to the agency’s bid to vastly extend its footprint by 2035.

“Money can be helpful, but it doesn’t solve decades of fractured working relationships,” said Deb Miller, a former member of the Surface Transportation Board, a federal agency that regulates disputes involving the railroad industry.

The Association of American Railroads, which represents freight rail companies and Amtrak, said both parties “share the same goal” of providing dependable service.

But Amtrak officials acknowledged that resistance from freight companies could stall its efforts to expand outside the Northeast and mid-Atlantic.

“We may certainly encounter pushback,” said William J. Flynn, the chief executive of Amtrak. “We’re encountering pushback now.”

Freight trains are the biggest cause of delays, Mr. Flynn said, although he added that Amtrak shouldered some of the blame. In 2020, according to Amtrak, the number of instances in which a freight train took precedence over passenger rail led to 700,000 minutes of delay.

“The freight railroads have to engage, and that’s not a coercive act on our part, it’s simply the law,” Mr. Flynn said.

Freight rail companies said they were receptive to working with Amtrak, although some officials, emphasizing the complexity of simultaneously supporting freight and passenger rail, argued that the agency could provide better compensation and improve communication.

“Problems come when passenger agencies design routes and plans without including freight hosts, and then expect a rubber stamp after the plans have been publicly announced,” Wes Lujan, the assistant vice president of external relations at Union Pacific, wrote in a recent statement.

Mr. Biden, a longtime rider who earned the nickname “Amtrak Joe” while serving in the Senate, underscored the issue last month in his sweeping executive order on competition, reiterating that by law, Amtrak takes precedence over freight trains.

Democratic lawmakers in the House are also trying to address the matter. Under the House’s version of the infrastructure bill, Amtrak could go directly to federal court to enforce its right to go first, rather than petitioning the Surface Transportation Board.

“This would give Amtrak a hammer, and then I believe the freight railroads would say, ‘Oh, yeah, OK, we’ll adjust our schedule a little bit here, though it’s a little bit of work,’” said Representative Peter A. DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat and the chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

In few places is that tension more evident than along the Gulf Coast.

In March, Amtrak asked the Surface Transportation Board to restore service of two daily trains between Mobile, Ala., and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the railroad in 2005. CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Railway — the companies that own the rail lines — have pushed back, voicing concerns about the consequences for their freight.

Bryan Tucker, a spokesman for CSX, said the company did not oppose Amtrak’s expansion, but wanted another study to be completed to better determine the potential delays to freight service.

John C. Driscoll, the director of the Alabama State Port Authority, said such studies were likely to show that more upgrades, like additional tracks off the main line to prevent traffic, would be needed.

“There’s no doubt that whatever comes out of this, in my mind, it’s going to require significant infrastructure improvements,” Mr. Driscoll said.

The Transportation Department has backed Amtrak, describing intercity passenger rail service across the country as a priority.

“Despite an extended period of examination and the investment of significant funds, Amtrak has been unable to obtain the agreement of the host freight railroads, and there is no clear or imminent path to the restoration of this service,” the department said in a filing.

But both parties continue to spar over the total cost of the improvements. The Transportation Department projected the cost at about $118 million, while CSX estimated it at $2.3 billion.

The Southern Rail Commission, a coalition of governor-appointed officials who represent Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, has claimed that CSX is overestimating the cost. The commission has secured $66 million to upgrade track switches and crossings in the region.

Restoring rail service on the Gulf Coast has become politically fraught. Joel Daves, a city councilman in Mobile, said any local money spent toward expanding service in the area would fund a “joy ride for the affluent.” Senator Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi, has expressed support for Amtrak’s expansion, which he said would bolster the local economy, but Senator Richard C. Shelby, Republican of Alabama, has sided with freight rail companies.

The board has yet to decide on the case, although Amtrak has asked for a quick ruling so it can resume service around January.

“I don’t believe we need more studies,” Mr. Flynn said. “We need a decision, and then we need to act on that decision.”

This article originally appeared on New York Times

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