'Can’t do' attitude does CSX, Gulf Coast economy a disservice

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Wednesday, July 12, 2017

CSX Assistant Vice President for Passenger Operations David Dech penned a letter to the editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, published on Monday, essentially saying “no can do” to the mayors, chambers of commerce and other city, county and state government and business leaders along the Gulf Coast who have been working for over a decade to bring passenger train service back to the New Orleans-Florida route that has been without it since Hurricane Katrina in September 2005. The stance that the Class I freight carrier appears to be taking in the letter is ultimately self-defeating, potentially closing off an avenue for public-private cooperation that would yield upgrades beneficial to both CSX and the Gulf Coast communities.

Crowds greet Amtrak's Feb. 16, 2017 Gulf Coast inspection train in Mobile, Ala. Photo by Tim Mueller for the Southern Rail Commission.
CSX does point out two legitimate areas of concern with regard to a passenger train’s use of its former Louisville & Nashville line that has been rebuilt for freight service since Katrina. Any service that is more frequent or operates on a different schedule from the thrice weekly overnight run that existed before the hurricane would be treated as a new route and would be subject to legal requirements enacted since 2005. Simply restoring the previous schedule, which is under indefinite suspension, may avoid these requirements, but would not satisfy the desires of the local communities for at least daily operation at more attractive hours. 

Not the least of the new mandates is the 2008 congressional stipulation that the line be equipped with Positive Train Control in order to carry passengers — adding several hundred million dollars to the start-up cost. The other difficulty CSX discusses is that the existing infrastructure — including 17 drawbridges that must be opened for maritime traffic — cannot support a twice-daily passenger train that can achieve at least 80 percent on-time performance, as required by 2016 Surface Transportation Board regulations that a federal appeals court vacated today, but may be restored by a higher court or reinstated by Congress using a different legal mechanism. 

Both of these are challenges that can be overcome with the proper investment and with earnest cooperation towards a common goal on behalf of all concerned. While the language of CSX’s letter is crafted so as not to completely close the door, its tone suggests that CSX would rather not deal with this than work to solve the problems. Instead of walking away from the negotiating table, CSX should look to three examples of cases where investments to maintain or improve freight railroad infrastructure primarily for the benefit of passenger trains wound up becoming tremendous boons to the freight carrier’s business.

The first is the route of Amtrak’s Empire Builder between Fargo and Minot, N.D., via Grand Forks. After flooding wreaked havoc on the line in the summer of 2011, BNSF made clear its intention not to restore this segment that had very little freight traffic (none that used the entirety of this segment as a through route), instead using the more direct Surrey Cutoff for through freight movement. But the State of North Dakota and the federal government stepped in with funds to allow BNSF to rebuild the line so that three communities on the section would not lose Amtrak service. 

Two years later, BNSF found itself swamped with more freight traffic than its infrastructure could handle thanks to the Bakken Shale fracking boom, and thus having two serviceable routes between Minot and Fargo became a key piece of redundancy that made the railroad’s entire transcontinental network more fluid. BNSF would have been in an even worse position to accommodate the boom had it said “no” to cooperating with the federal and state governments to support passenger service.

A second example involving BNSF is the multi-jurisdictional effort that culminated in 2015 with the award of a $15 million federal grant to make repairs necessary to keep the segment of the Southwest Chief’s route between Albuquerque and Newton, Kan. via Raton Pass maintained to passenger train standards. Even though the Class I ran no through freight traffic on this segment, instead using its Transcon line via Amarillo, Tex., it saw the wisdom in partnering with the three states, Amtrak and the federal government for the sake of having network redundancy and capacity for future traffic growth.

Locals express support for the return of passenger service as Amtrak's inspection train pauses in Bay St. Louis, Miss. on Feb. 16. Photo by Dean Mastoras for Trains.
My final case in point is that of three short line and regional railroads that have seen their infrastructure greatly improved for the sake of faster and more reliable passenger service: Virginia’s Buckingham Branch Railroad (which hosts Amtrak’s Cardinal between Orange and Clifton Forge, Va.), Gennessee & Wyoming’s New England Central Railroad (carrying the Vermonter between Brattleboro and St. Albans, Vt.) and Pan Am Railways (accommodating the Vermonter between Springfield, Mass. and Brattleboro, along with the Downeaster corridor between Haverhill, Mass. and Brunswick, Maine). All three have been able to provide speedier freight service and seen improved ability to manage traffic flows thanks to these publicly-funded upgrades.

If the only existing roadway linking New Orleans to the Florida panhandle was a two-lane with numerous drawbridges, there would be little opposition to building a four-lane expressway, and private contractors would be lining up to get in on the project. A combination of public and private investment could yield rail infrastructure that is capable of handling four daily passenger trains with high on-time performance and with the safety and potential business benefits of PTC. This would enable CSX to handle more traffic and serve new customers while providing the catalyst for economic activity that on-line cities and towns always witness from reliable, convenient passenger trains. 

This is the kind of infrastructure that all metropolitan corridors need at a bare minimum to be economically competitive in the 21st century. When it comes to enhancing the rail mode so that it can play a greater role in moving freight and passengers on the Gulf Coast corridor, CSX seems to be sorely lacking in vision, even for its own bottom line. Let’s hope that this progress-resistant attitude is not indicative of the direction CEO Hunter Harrison is taking the railroad.

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