Associated Press

A government agency turned down objections from freight railroads Friday and let Amtrak move ahead with procedural work to resume passenger train service between New Orleans and Mobile.

The Surface Transportation Board dismissed objections from CSX and Norfolk Southern Railway and let Amtrak continue with its attempt to gain access to freight lines for passenger trains, which it hopes to begin operating on the northern Gulf Coast in January.

The region has been without passenger service since Hurricane Katrina badly damaged tracks and equipment in 2005. Before that, passenger trains ran between New Orleans and Mobile three times a week.

While Louisiana and Mississippi have supported a resumption, partly in hopes of increasing tourism, Alabama has withheld funding over concern that Amtrak trains would interfere with freight service at the Port of Mobile. The board said the lack of unanimous state support showed the need for a hearing to consider issues surrounding passenger service.

The Southern Rail Commission, which supports the new service, said in a statement it was “especially pleased” that the board found no need for an environmental review and set an “aggressive” hearing schedule to move the project along.

“Our communities are ready for the return daily rail service,” said commission member Knox Ross.

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi praised the decision in a statement.

“Implementing twice-daily service between New Orleans and Mobile will increase access to jobs, boost tourism, provide a safe alternative to highway travel, and reduce roadway congestion,” he said. “It will also continue to grow the coastal economy as it emerges from the pandemic, improving the overall quality of life in Mississippi.”

CSX said it was still evaluating the decision but planned to proceed with the schedule established in the board’s decision. Norfolk Southern did not immediately responded to an email message seeking comment.

Amtrak has said that a congressionally directed working group determined in 2017 that rail service could resume with an initial $5.4 million in capital improvements, followed by $95 million in subsequent improvements after service resumed. CSX put the cost of needed improvements for passenger service at $2 billion, according to Amtrak.