Happening Now

Ugly Gulf Coast Portent From STB Service Failures Hearing?

May 13, 2022

By Jim Mathews / President & CEO

The Surface Transportation Board this week took up another series of evidentiary hearings as it considers Amtrak’s motion asking STB to order CSX and Norfolk Southern to stop stonewalling restoration of passenger rail service between New Orleans and Mobile.

It came on the heels of notable – or perhaps notorious – testimony on April 26 before the Board by CSX CEO James M. Foote about an entirely different issue, as the Board began trying to grapple with shippers’ voluminous complaints about Class I railroads’ seeming inability to run enough trains and to run them efficiently enough to keep America’s already shaky supply chains running.

Foote got into a very undignified exchange with Board Member Robert A. Primus which was both testy and disrespectful, and possibly offers an insight into CSX’s overall stance heading into whatever ruling the Board makes on the Gulf case.

Even though a parade of other Class I witnesses told the Board about hiring and staffing problems which mirror those of other industries, when Primus asked Foote about hiring and staffing Foote shot back that Primus was asking “unrealistic” questions. Later, when Primus asked him about service failures, Foote shot back with an impolite and unrealistic request of his own: “You want an answer? Let us run the trains with one employee.” Never mind that the Board has no legal ability to get rid of labor contracts requiring two-person crews.

In the Gulf Coast restoration case, I think Chair Martin J. Oberman and the rest of the Board Members are trying hard to ensure that there are no due process grounds for an appeal. They’re doing a very good job of getting all views out and on the table, adding evidentiary hearing dates and bending over backwards to permit all the parties to respond, and counter, as details about the restoration continue to be aired.

But what this means is it is taking much longer than anyone would’ve expected or hoped to get something out the door.

My read on the service-failures exchange between Foote and Primus is that CSX is probably already preparing a fill-in-the-blank appeals brief which they will likely file within hours of any final decision. So, the next question after the STB decision will be whether a Federal appeals court will grant a motion preserving the status quo (no Amtrak service) while an appeal takes place. If there’s an appeal, and a status quo motion passes, we could wait a very long time – again – to see service come back to the Gulf.