The Federal Railroad Administration is expected to send a report to Congress soon from the Gulf Coast Working Group, which Congress created in 2015 to examine the potential for new Gulf Coast passenger-rail service.
The report will likely recommend funding for additional planning work aimed at starting new, twice-daily passenger service between New Orleans and Sanford, Fla., mostly on CSX’s tracks.
CSX genuinely wishes to continue to be a partner in Gulf Coast community successes. We understand the view that there was Amtrak service in the past, and therefore restoration should be feasible. But that view is not accurate. There are facts about the past service that have been lost to memory, and there are overwhelming new legal requirements standing in the way now.
It is true that passenger rail service existed before Hurricane Katrina. But it ran on time only 7 percent of the time in its last full year of operation, according to the U.S. Dept. of Transportation. That level of performance would violate new federal regulations, put in place since 2005, which would require the service to run on time 80 percent of the time.
Without more information, that standard would sound completely fair and achievable.
Here’s the problem. The Gulf Coast line crosses 17 drawbridges between New Orleans and Sanford. Maritime traffic, essential to this region, gets priority over trains at those bridges. As a result, it is virtually impossible to design a service that runs reliably across the line, meets customer expectations or complies with the law. No plan has been proposed by the Gulf Coast Working Group that would come close to the 80 percent on-time requirement.
Separately, an important new safety requirement comes from the 2008 Railroad Safety Improvement Act. It requires rail lines used for regularly scheduled passenger service to be equipped with a Positive Train Control (PTC) safety system. PTC can help prevent accidents such as train-to-train collisions and derailments due to excess speed. A widely seen recent example of a PTC-preventable Amtrak accident was the 2015 derailment in Philadelphia, caused by speeding, in which eight lives were lost and hundreds were injured. The Gulf Coast Working Group failed to consider the cost of adding PTC and, instead, proposes seeking a waiver to avoid installation.
Finally, the rail infrastructure between New Orleans and central Florida is not sufficient to support the desired service. A 2016 study by an independent global engineering firm, co-sponsored by the FRA, found that $2 billion or more is required to create the infrastructure needed to safely support the proposed new passenger service. The Working Group’s proposal would not make that investment, would not install PTC and would not come anywhere near the on-time performance requirements.
CSX is proud to support safe and reliable rail transportation for passengers in the states where we operate. CSX also must comply with all relevant legal requirements, keep faith with the traveling public and preserve its ability to serve much-needed area business by moving freight safely and reliably. For the proposed new Gulf Coast passenger service, unfortunately, the infrastructure needed does not exist and is expensive, and the service proposed simply could not meet customer expectations or federal regulations for safety and performance. These issues, and others, must be addressed before Gulf Coast passenger-rail service can move forward.