Now You See It, Now You Don’t!

In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina hammered the Gulf Coast, killing more than 1800 people and causing $108 billion in damage. Included in that mess were many miles of track belonging to the CSX railroad that were washed out along the coast. That, of course, meant the cancellation of the New Orleans-to-Orlando segment of Amtrak’s trans-continental train, the Sunset Limited.
The track has long since been repaired, but here we are, a dozen years later, and the Sunset Limited still only operates between Los Angeles and New Orleans three days a week. Despite regular prodding by citizen groups, including NARP, the Sunset’s New Orleans-to-Orlando segment has never been restored.
Then, a year or so ago, after testimony from NARP, citizen groups, and other concerned parties, the federal government created the Southern Rail Commission. Its charge was to generate a report on the feasibility of bringing passenger trains back to the South. An inspection train was organized to run the length of the proposed route from New Orleans to Orlando. Representatives from the FRA and Amtrak were aboard, as were Jim Mathews, NARP’s president and CEO, and other officials from all levels of government. At each stop they were greeted by local officials, business groups, and large crowds of ordinary folks. It was an effort to judge citizen support for restoring passenger service to the area and the answer was very clear: the people want their train back!
The very large pea under the proverbial mattress was CSX, owner of the track. Ultimately, the railroad would have to agree to handle the Amtrak trains. They started by demanding $2.3 billion-with-a-B as the price tag for doing whatever needed to be done on their end before Amtrak could operate passenger trains over CSX tracks.
Little by little, as talks between CSX and the other interested parties progressed, that cost was negotiated down—from $2.3 billion to around $800 million, a number that my sources tell me, is actually do-able. Suddenly, with the several interested parties involved and working together, restoring passenger trains to those areas actually appeared to be possible.
But in March of this year, CSX was unexpectedly taken over by one Hunter Harrison, former CEO of the Canadian Pacific railroad. A member of the Southern Rail Commission described what happened:
“Hunter Harrison . . . is not amenable to our interests. [The CSX] position was fixed and firm. They said we should go back to the original estimate of $2.3 billion, that they would have no further negotiations, and they walked out of the meeting.”
So, as of today, CSX stockholders are pleased. The ideologues at the Heritage Foundation and their surrogates in Congress are pleased. And the expressed wishes and needs of the people are of absolutely no concern to the people running things.