In the midst of once-in-a-generation levels of inflation, record-high gas prices, and a lingering supply chain crisis, it’s gut check time for the U.S. economy. During times like these every decision we make as a nation needs to be viewed through the lens of meeting the imminent challenges facing consumers here at home – to say nothing of the global unrest at play elsewhere in the world.
The trials we are facing won’t be solved overnight or by some “silver bullet” policy prescription, but there are actions we can take to avoid exacerbating this quagmire. Unfortunately, as we cast our eyes toward the U.S. Gulf Coast we find that not all parties have signed-on to this sound approach.
Amid these co-mingled and unprecedented economic pressures, Amtrak is in the midst of an all out blitz aimed at adding two new round trip passenger trains per day to a freight rail line running between Mobile, Alabama and New Orleans, Louisiana. To paraphrase the many stakeholders who voiced their considerable concerns during recent public hearings on the matter hosted by the Surface Transportation Board, these two train routes are unnecessary, ill-timed, and – worst of all – potentially calamitous. In short, the risk of disruption is significant for the freight rail network relied upon so heavily by countless shippers, manufacturers, small businesses, and consumers across the region.
Worst of all, Amtrak failed the test of basic due diligence, neglecting to engage with all of the impacted community – before embarking on this boondoggle.
While the need for this passenger service is debatable given declining Amtrak ridership (a reality even before the pandemic), the necessity of the project isn’t of paramount importance. Even if we set the question of the necessity aside, serious concerns remain.
Most importantly, two new passenger train round trips per day will have a decidedly detrimental impact on the operations of the freight railroads that own and currently have exclusive use of these tracks. The new routes will make the lines more congested, compel reduced speeds, introduce considerable variability in timing and reliability, and more. This would be a problem along any length of freight rail and at any time. Considering the project seeks to use the very tracks that service the Port of Mobile and other key shipping infrastructure, and given the immense pressures already facing the American supply chain, the burdens posed by this project are particularly severe.
When freight rail suffers, the entire supply chain suffers. Delivery timelines are disrupted. Necessary materials are delayed. Consumer goods become short on supply. And prices continue to be pressed upward. From our perspective, in an environment already defined by runaway inflation and paychecks that need to be stretched further and further every month, the last thing any entity should be doing is pressing for accommodations that create even more pressure on a critical thoroughfare of consumer goods and raw materials.
It should be noted that freight rail and passenger rail can co-exist on the same tracks. In fact, most passenger rail in the United States runs on tracks owned and operated by freight railroads. The necessary elements of this co-existence, though, are collaboration, cooperation, and open communication. That’s not what’s happening on the Gulf Coast.
CSX and NS, the host railroads, have indicated that they’re willing to work with Amtrak to accommodate the extra trains assuming that Amtrak will utilize some of its ample billions in available public funding to pay for the necessary upgrades that will be needed to ensure that freight trains can operate alongside passenger trains without disruption. That’s the norm for deals like these, but Amtrak has been unwilling to step up in this case, and their silence speaks volumes.
The good news is that there’s still time to reconsider this idea. The voices that were heard during last month’s hearings made it clear that significant concern exists among those reviewing the proposal with regard to the project’s value within the context of ongoing economic unrest. We hope the decision makers overseeing this process recognize the gravity of these concerns. In doing so, they’ll protect us from a serious self-inflicted injury at a time when such actions should be avoided at all costs.