“Problems come when passenger agencies design routes and plans without including freight hosts, and then expect a rubber stamp after the plans have been publicly announced,” Wes Lujan, the assistant vice president of external relations at Union Pacific, wrote in a recent statement.
Mr. Biden, a longtime rider who earned the nickname “Amtrak Joe” while serving in the Senate, underscored the issue last month in his sweeping executive order on competition, reiterating that by law, Amtrak takes precedence over freight trains.
Democratic lawmakers in the House are also trying to address the matter. Under the House’s version of the infrastructure bill, Amtrak could go directly to federal court to enforce its right to go first, rather than petitioning the Surface Transportation Board.
“This would give Amtrak a hammer, and then I believe the freight railroads would say, ‘Oh, yeah, OK, we’ll adjust our schedule a little bit here, though it’s a little bit of work,’” said Representative Peter A. DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat and the chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
In few places is that tension more evident than along the Gulf Coast.
In March, Amtrak asked the Surface Transportation Board to restore service of two daily trains between Mobile, Ala., and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the railroad in 2005. CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Railway — the companies that own the rail lines — have pushed back, voicing concerns about the consequences for their freight.
Bryan Tucker, a spokesman for CSX, said the company did not oppose Amtrak’s expansion, but wanted another study to be completed to better determine the potential delays to freight service.
John C. Driscoll, the director of the Alabama State Port Authority, said such studies were likely to show that more upgrades, like additional tracks off the main line to prevent traffic, would be needed.