A federal board has ruled that freight rail company CSX must share never-before-seen traffic data with Amtrak as the two move toward mediation over the future of the proposed Gulf Coast rail route.
The Surface Transportation Board’s ruling came Friday and requires CSX to grant Amtrak access to materials the shipping company had designated as “highly confidential.” Amtrak needs that information to create traffic studies to show the impacts a proposed passenger train could have on the route.
The board is asking all parties, including Amtrak and CSX, to submit traffic studies as evidence and ordered them to meet with a mediator.
“All parties must have the opportunity to fully respond to the evidentiary issues raised at the hearing,” said Chairman Martin J. Oberman. “It is also the intent of the Board to have a full and comprehensive record on such an important matter affecting the public interest.”
The board decided that Amtrak was at a disadvantage in producing meaningful traffic studies without previously protected freight train data. New traffic reports must be filed with the board by July 13.
Amtrak has been pushing a Gulf Coast train route that will connect Mobile to New Orleans with four stops in Mississippi for years. Amtrak stopped operating through Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. Last March, he filed a complaint with the Surface Transportation Board about the route, accusing the shipping companies of stalling any meaningful negotiations.
Transportation company officials say the Mississippi rail corridor is congested and Amtrak has overcome obstacles to streamline it. CSX officials also said the repairs and upgrades needed to accommodate passenger trains will cost taxpayers more than $400 million.
“Amtrak appreciates the Board’s continued efforts to infuse transparency into this process and will work to meet the Board’s new deadline,” said spokesman Marc Magliari. “We will also work with whatever mediator the Board appoints and continue our preparations to begin this service along the Gulf Coast as soon as possible.”
The board says that the mediation period will be no more than 30 days, from the date of the first session.
The mediation order comes after weeks of public hearings.
READ MORE: How the dispute between Amtrak and CSX on the Gulf Coast train escalates
By law, Amtrak can run passenger trains on tracks owned by a carrier, as long as it does not unreasonably harm the carriers. Whether Amtrak’s route, which would operate a morning and evening train, would be “unreasonable” was at the core of the public hearings and will be addressed by the traffic studies the board requested.
“CSX appreciates STB’s decision to order Board-sponsored mediation and looks forward to working with the designated mediator and all parties toward a reasonable and amicable solution,” the company said in a statement.