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Guest: Shippers shouldn’t bear costs of Amtrak’s passenger proposal

Discussion of the future of passenger rail service along the Gulf Coast has been going on for years now, and the public hearings conducted last month only amplified the intensity of the debate.

As is so often the case, it can be difficult to sort through the noise when considering something as complex as the future of regional transportation infrastructure. Even if the bigger picture is complex, though, for companies like ours – Anderson Columbia Co., Inc. – the practical reality of the issue is straightforward.

To put it simply, Amtrak’s request to add new service consisting of two roundtrip passenger trains per day to freight rail tracks between New Orleans and Mobile amounts to a tangible threat to our company’s bottom line. By making freight railroads more congested and shipping schedules less reliable, Amtrak’s plan will push our costs higher and make it harder for us to deliver for the customers that rely on us.

Our company depends heavily on freight rail. Evidence submitted to the Surface Transportation Board makes it clear that the introduction of new passenger service proposed by Amtrak will cause significant harm to freight rail across the Gulf Coast. Reduced freight train speeds, increased delays, and drastic operational unpredictability are serious matters for our company and countless others like ours. And while our company isn’t directly situated on this particular route, we know from experience that delays and impacts to this line will result in significant challenges to the entire freight rail network.

We’re worried that if this project moves forward without the necessary upgrades to existing infrastructure, it will become much harder for us to meet our customers’ demands while maintaining profitability. We also know we’re not alone in these concerns. Given the deeply interconnected nature of the freight rail system, it’s a near certainty that if one part of the freight rail network is impacted those impacts will be felt across the entire region.

It’s important to note that our concerns with this project aren’t rooted in opposition to the idea of expanded passenger rail service. In fact, when we shared our comments with the Surface Transportation Board, we made it clear that we were not voicing an opinion on the merits of passenger service itself. We are, however, resolute in our belief that the financial and logistical burden of Amtrak’s plan shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of shippers like us, or, for that matter, the freight railroads whose tracks Amtrak wants to use.

Amtrak receives billions of dollars in federal funding, including a huge windfall as part of the recently approved infrastructure package. While we aren’t weighing in on the value of taxpayer funded passenger rail, we do believe strongly that Amtrak should be responsible for the financial costs of their proposed expansion.

Options are available to ensure that passenger trains can be introduced to these routes without disrupting freight rail. Yet Amtrak hasn’t committed to make any investments in the infrastructure that their proposal will use. We believe it’s unfair for Amtrak to insist on operating passenger service without regard for the businesses it will share the corridor with. Amtrak’s unwillingness to make the infrastructure investments necessary to ensure smooth freight operations on that line will be a burden on the entire network. Furthermore, it’s deeply concerning that Amtrak is attempting to start this new service without making those investments as it is a troubling precedent to set for similar passenger service expansion plans in the future.

If Amtrak doesn’t pay its own way by funding infrastructure improvements, we may be forced to turn to more expensive or less efficient shipping alternatives or will be forced to subsidize Amtrak’s service. Without modification, it’s clear to us that the costs of this proposal will be passed on to freight railroads, companies like ours, and the customers we serve.

No one operates in a vacuum in today’s economy. Good corporate citizens respect and engage with all stakeholders. The benefits of the free market are shared along with the obligations in a business community that functions well. We’re ready to welcome passenger rail to the community we share, but it’s essential that Amtrak steps up to the plate and funds the improvements we know to be necessary rather than imposing those costs on others.

Brian Schrieber is Vice President/Corporate Secretary of Anderson Columbia Co., Inc.

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