Railroads Return to Service After Hurricanes Pound Gulf Coast

NEW ORLEANS — Major railroads worked to return service after a pair of hurricanes pounded the Gulf Coast, left thousands homeless and destroyed much of the region’s infrastructure.

“All of America grieves at the unfolding tragedy and our company and employees are anxious to help,” Matthew K. Rose, BNSF Chairman, President and CEO, said in a letter to three area governors. “We understand there are matters more immediate than transportation and logistics issues, but BNSF will stand ready to help when the time comes [to stage relief efforts].”

Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in late August and flooded much of New Orleans. About three weeks later, Hurricane Rita came ashore near the Louisiana-Texas state line. During September, Amtrak had little or no service into New Orleans. The nation’s passenger railroad truncated its trains that would normally serve The Big Easy.

“Rail lines and facilities are pretty badly beaten up, but the freights and Amtrak are working hard to restore service” on lines, including the routes used by Amtrak and owned by freight railroads, said Amtrak President and CEO David Gunn.

“We are doing a damage assessment of our facilities and we’ll start repairs very soon. We want to resume our operations as quickly as feasible in New Orleans and other communities in Louisiana and Mississippi Amtrak serves,” Gunn added.

The freight railroads that own the rail lines over which these three Amtrak trains operate are working to repair miles of damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. Amtrak employees are working to restore operations at the Amtrak station in New Orleans. However, no date is yet known for the reopening of passenger rail service in New Orleans.

Because of the Hurricane, Amtrak offered full refunds and waived all penalties for passengers who had made reservations traveling to or from New Orleans or other areas served by the affected trains. Hurricane Katrina caused significant damage to a confined area of the CSX rail network in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Repair work already has begun, and the company has rerouted rail traffic to ensure customer service.

However, to help with urgent cash needs related to Hurricane Katrina, CSX Corporation says it is prepaying approximately $600,000 in property taxes to Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties in Mississippi. The company is also pledging to do the same in affected Louisiana and Alabama counties where it has operations.

“We are grateful to CSX for this very helpful assistance at a time of great need,” said Wayne Brown, Southern District Commissioner of the Mississippi State Department of Transportation. “The CSX tax prepayment represents a model of cooperation that other able companies can follow. With the public and private sectors working together, we will rebuild from this crisis.”

For its approximately 300 Gulf Coast employees most affected by the hurricane, CSX is providing guaranteed pay and benefits through September, as well as temporary job assignments at other locations. In addition, the company to date has committed $600,000 to $700,000 in employee and community assistance through various other efforts, including an additional $1,000 payment for each affected employee to assist with urgent needs and a $1,250-per-month living allowance for employees on temporary job assignment.

“We are actively supporting CSX people and their neighbors in the areas hard hit by Hurricane Katrina,” said Michael Ward, CSX chairman, president and chief executive officer. “We look forward to hearing from every one of our employees as soon as possible and will continue to join hands with other members of the business community, government and charitable organizations to provide assistance at this difficult time.”

Despite Katrina’s devastation, Norfolk Southern Corp. said much of its rail operations in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi were back to normal fairly quickly after the storm, though service in the immediate New Orleans area remained out for some time.

As a result, Norfolk Southern said freight that regularly travels through New Orleans for connection to other carriers is being rerouted through the railroad’s other gateways.

Since the hurricane struck, Norfolk Southern crews have inspected some 1,400 miles of railroad tracks and removed 3,680 trees on lines in the Gulf States.

Stephen C. Tobias, vice chairman and chief operating officer, credited NS people and systems with the quick and safe recovery.

“Railroaders have had their share of experience in responding to hurricanes, from Camille to Andrew and from Fran to Hugo. When Katrina came, they were prepared, they knew what to do, and they did it safely,” he said.

Preparations included moving rolling equipment inland and staging people, ballast, rail and equipment just outside the hurricane’s path. Transportation planners used the railroad’s Thoroughbred Operating Plan to plot “what if” scenarios in advance of Katrina’s arrival, allowing for efficient rerouting of freight.

Tobias said repairs will get under way in the next several days on Norfolk Southern’s 5.8-mile long concrete ballast trestle across Lake Pontchartrain from Slidell, La., to New Orleans, where several miles of rail were washed from the top of the bridge. Additionally, Norfolk Southern’s Oliver Yard in New Orleans was under water as of this morning.

“Once we restore rail to the bridge and repair adjacent trackage, and once water recedes, we will be able to move needed materials and supplies into the area,” Tobias said. “We recognize the extreme need of our neighbors in New Orleans, and we will work as quickly and safely as possible to help in their recovery.”