Amtrak Gulf Motion: No Bad-Faith Mediation, Please
May 20, 2022
By Jim Mathews / President & CEO
A little more than a week after a clearly frustrated Surface Transportation Board Chair Marty Oberman emphatically urged Amtrak, CSX, Norfolk Southern, and the Port of Alabama to try to work out a settlement over Amtrak’s proposed Gulf Coast service restoration, Amtrak filed a motion made public today opposing CSX and Norfolk-Southern’s calls earlier this week for mediation and a stay of the Board’s Gulf Coast proceedings.
Citing a series of questions and requests Amtrak made to its opponents this week which went unanswered “it is clear to Amtrak that CSX and NS have no intention of entering the mediation process in good faith and with a commitment to transparency,” Amtrak said in its motion. “CSX and NS have been resolute in preventing Amtrak from having access to information that not only would allow Amtrak to respond to the Board’s requests, but also allow Amtrak to assess the validity of CSX’s and NS’s demands for infrastructure to be paid for by taxpayer dollars.”
Amtrak described the two Class I railroads’ requests for mediation along with a 60-day stay of the Gulf Coast proceeding as “simply another effort to delay resolution of an issue that has already encountered far too much delay.”
Closing out the latest Gulf Coast hearing on May 12, Oberman pointed out that everyone involved in the proceeding needed to “fill in the gaps” in the evidentiary record to help the Board come to a decision that not only satisfies the parties but looks after the public interest.
He had particularly harsh criticism for the lack of information around the utility of the Rail Traffic Controller (RTC) modeling studies, noting that the RTC study didn’t consider any operational changes as an alternative to infrastructure investments, assumed a 95 percent on-time performance goal for Amtrak trains, well beyond the statute’s 80 percent requirement, included no documentation for the field data on traffic, omitted any cost-benefit evidence for individual capital projects, and had no data on the effects on individual shippers that might result. And yet, despite these shortcomings, Oberman said, the Board is expected to come to a finding of whether the proposed new service, per the statute, “unreasonably impairs” freight operations.
Amtrak and DOT have tried repeatedly to get access to the RTC data, and both were rebuffed. Citing the “profound lack” of communication and cooperation, Board Member and former FRA deputy Karen Hedlund said at the end of the May 12th proceeding that she “found the last number of weeks very frustrating.”
She bluntly noted that “if I was the Administrator of the FRA, and Peter Schwartz came to me and said ‘We're being asked to put money into the Gulf Coast, and there's an RTC study that indicates how much the railroads have said indicates how much additional infrastructure is needed, but they won't give us the information for us to evaluate it,’ I would have immediately picked up the phone and called the CEOs of your railroads and said ‘What is going on?’”
As it stands, if there’s no mediation, the Gulf Coast proceeding will reconvene on Monday, June 13th, which Oberman hopes will give all parties time to file enough additional information around the troublesome areas of the case so that the Board can issue a ruling and a decision.
"The Rail Passenger Association's recognition of the essential work done by SMART-TD members aboard Amtrak during this difficult period is appreciated. The Golden Spike Award serves as a testament to the compassion and dedication our conductors, assistant conductors and other workers exhibit constantly through times both ordinary and extraordinary."
Jeremy Ferguson, SMART-TD President
December 21, 2021, on the Association awarding its 2021 Golden Spike Award to the Frontline Amtrak Employees.