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With A Friend In Biden, Amtrak Has Big Dreams. But Freight Lines Have Other Ideas

A freight train rolls through Bay St. Louis. April 27, 2021. [Stephan Bisaha / Gulf States Newsroom]
A freight train rolls through Bay St. Louis. April 27, 2021.

Like a lot of us, Amtrak had a rough 2020. Ridership fell nearly half from the prior year.

But with the worst of the pandemic seemingly in the past, Amtrak doesn't just want to get back to where it was before the recession – chugging along, slowly adding new riders for a few decades. It wants Americans to fall back in love with trains.

Amtrak's planning on adding 39 new routes across the country and boosting service on lines that already exist. It's setting a goal of 20 million more customers each year – a 60% jump from its pre-pandemic high.

But opposition from the freight train industry could halt those plans. Shippers worry sharing a line will delay trains carrying essential goods and drive up costs. Existing Amtrak lines are also desperate for money, with repair backlogs requiring billions of dollars, leaving Amtrak with plenty of obstacles before any new trains can leave the station.

First up for Amtrak's ambitious plans – a new line between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, planned to start next year. Supporters say this will be an economic shot in the arm, especially for the four Mississippi beach towns along the way.

"It's one of the best things that will happen to the coast," said Nikki Moon, the owner of the Bay Town Inn in Bay St. Louis, Miss.

An economic impact study by the University of Southern Mississippi reported the train could generate hundreds of millions of dollars for Mississippi's economy from tourism spending.

Bay St. Louis' former downtown, which sits across from the train depot, used to be known for seedy bars and empty storefronts. Now the strip mall has a new restaurant and women's boutique. A pilates studio and a dog store – BoneJour – will be opening up soon, in part because of the proposed Amtrak line.

A passenger train used to travel through the Gulf Coast cities before Hurricane Katrina halted the service.

President Joe Biden, also known as Amtrak Joe, says passenger rail should play a key part in rebuilding the nation's economy. His initial infrastructure proposal called for $80 billion for Amtrak repairs and new routes.

"Amtrak doesn't just carry us from one place to another – it opens up enormous possibilities," Biden said at an event marking Amtrak's 50th anniversary. "And especially now, it makes it possible to build an economy of the future and one that we need."

The U.S. lags behind other countries in terms of passenger rail. Europe sparks envy for the ease of its city-to-city travel; Japan for its bullet trains.

But when it comes to freight trains, the American industry delivers more goods farther and cheaper than other countries. Railroads account for about 40 percent of all freight movement in the country – the rest moving by truck, pipeline, water or air.

The growth of freight made the Port of Mobile an economic powerhouse for Alabama. Train tracks weave between stacks of shipping containers and piles of coal before making their way to the docks. Giant cranes unload car parts and copper off cargo ships hundreds of feet long. Forklifts unpack iron and peanuts from trains that stretch for miles.

The Alabama State Port Authority reports the port supports about 150,000 jobs and raises about $660 million in taxes for the state.

But Alabama politicians and business leaders worry an Amtrak train would just clog up the supply chain.

Adding a passenger train to a railroad isn't like a Greyhound bus sharing a highway with 18-wheelers. Passenger and freight trains travel at different speeds and have to wait to pass each other – a task made harder since freight trains can be more than three miles in length.

Despite the challenges, rail experts say the trains can and do share rail lines without major disruption.

"The question then becomes where is that sweet spot where they can coexist and at what point does it become a conflict?" said P.S. Sriraj, the director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois Chicago.

Amtrak supporters and the private rail companies agree the tracks between Mobile and New Orleans need updating, but disagree on how much. The Federal Railroad Administration estimates it would cost $118 million – the company that owns the track says $2.3 billion.

Tension between freight and passenger rail in the United States isn't new. It's actually how Amtrak was formed.

Before 1970, private railroads were required to run passenger trains, but that side of the business was not profitable. To protect the freight side of the railroad business, Congress passed the Rail Passenger Service Act so railroads would no longer be forced to offer service to riders. But Congress still wanted passenger rail, so the law created a federally supported corporation to offer the service. Amtrak was born.

Railroad owners are still required to work with Amtrak to let it use the private railroads to run passenger trains in exchange for compensation. If the companies refuse to reach a deal, Amtrak can ask an independent federal board to force the owners to let the passenger trains run.

Now that's being tested with the Gulf Coast line. In March, Amtrak requested the board to allow passenger trains to start running on the private railroad tracks. CSX and Norfolk Southern say the request should be rejected.

At stake is Biden's dream for an Amtrak golden age – if the board sides with Amtrak, it could fast track plans to start new routes elsewhere. If the private rail companies have their way, plans for nearly 40 new lines by 2035 could get derailed.

"How does the expansion – or lack thereof – of passenger rail look in the coming years?" said Knox Ross, the treasurer for the Southern Rail Commission. "This is an issue that's much larger than Mobile and New Orleans."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.