Amtrak Is Streaming an Empty Railroad on Twitch to Beef With Freight Rail Companies

Amtrak wants to run two round-trip trains a day between Mobile and New Orleans. Freight companies are fighting it. So Amtrak is taking it to Twitch.
Empty railroad
Credit: Twitch
Screen Shot 2021-02-24 at 3
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Amtrak set up a Twitch stream in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, on Wednesday that shows an empty railroad track in front of a parking lot. Birds can be heard chirping in the background, and otherwise nothing happens. The stream was up for a few minutes and then died twice. “We’re having tech difficulties but will be back on soon,” Amtrak said in the chat. “It’s our first time streaming, so bare [sic] with us, gamers.” 

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Amtrak getting into Twitch is the latest salvo in an ongoing fight between the passenger rail network and freight companies CSX and Norfolk Southern (NS) over restoring service between Mobile, Alabama, and New Orleans. Amtrak, a government-chartered corporation, was created in 1971 from the ashes of private carrier passenger service. As part of the deal, freight rail companies generally retained ownership of the tracks, along with the responsibility of maintaining them and running service. Amtrak received the rights to run trains along those tracks. By law, Amtrak’s passenger trains also have priority over freight traffic. But in practice this doesn’t happen, and freight traffic is the leading source of delays on Amtrak trains outside the Northeast Corridor, one of the only places Amtrak retains ownership of tracks (along with sections owned by state governments that also operate commuter rails). 

While there has long been tension between Amtrak’s passenger service and freight rail operations, the Gulf Coast fight has turned particularly ridiculous. Amtrak wants to run two round-trip trains a day between those cities, which stopped service after Hurricane Katrina. CSX and NS are trying to block this, claiming it would “impair unreasonably” freight operations and without infrastructure improvements there would be “a near catastrophic meltdown of freight operations.” Those upgrades, the railroads say, would cost some $440 million.

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As part of the ongoing beef, CSX has said Amtrak running two trains a day on this “very busy corridor” would be problematic for its own freight service. Which is why Amtrak decided to start the Twitch stream, to find out how busy the corridor really is.

Between 8 a.m. and 12:49 Central Time, Amtrak says it counted three trains on CSX’s tracks.

Update: After publication, in response to a Motherboard request for comment, CSX dismissed the Amtrak stunt. “It takes a freight train about 8-10 hours to travel between New Orleans and Mobile,” a CSX spokesperson said in a statement. “Focusing on one point of a line that traverses approximately 138 single track miles, major ports and Interchange points and then purporting that it is indicative of the operational realities of the entire line is grossly misleading. Anyone that understands railroad operations, including Amtrak, would know that.”

An Amtrak spokesperson responded, “If CSX would answer questions to the media about how many through trains are on this route, then we wouldn’t have to set up these cameras.”

CSX has not responded to a Motherboard inquiry about how many through trains are on this route per day. We will keep providing updates on this beef as the situation develops.

Update #2: CSX responded to Motherboard’s question about how many through trains it runs on this route per day: 8-10 through trains, 1-3 coal and grain trains, and “numerous” local trains. The CSX spokesperson also noted Amtrak wants to run two round-trips per day, so four trains altogether.