House bill would expand STB’s authority over railroad service

By Bill Stephens for

Association of American Railroads says STB reauthorization measure would threaten the viability of the freight railroads and exacerbate ongoing service problems

The Surface Transportation Board would get more teeth under a shipper-friendly bill that would reauthorize the agency that regulates freight railroads.

The Freight Rail Shipping Fair Market Act, introduced Tuesday, would give regulators more authority to deal with service emergencies, require railroads to include service standards in contracts with customers, and give shippers the ability to slap fees on railroads that delay privately owned freight cars.

The measure also orders the STB to regularly reevaluate what commodities are exempt from regulation, sets minimum service standards for shipments moving under tariffs, and provides clearer direction to the STB regarding disputes over railroads’ common carrier obligations.

Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr., a New Jersey Democrat who is one of the chairs of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials, accused freight railroads of placing profits ahead of service.

“My bill gives the Surface Transportation Board the power to prohibit rail rate increases during a rail emergency and resolve rail emergencies when they occur,” Payne said. “This bill will improve the speed and reliability of rail service and guarantee that freight rail shipping continues to improve in the future without unnecessary regulations.”

The bill’s sponsors say giving the STB a bigger toolbox would create incentives for Class I railroads to improve service.

But the Association of American Railroads said the measure, if passed, would threaten the viability of the freight railroads and exacerbate ongoing service problems.

“This imprudent proposal turns the clock back more than 40 years and reinstates an unbalanced regulatory framework that replaces free-market principles with unjustified government mandates,” said AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies. “Since the industry was partially deregulated in 1980, freight railroads have invested nearly $760 billion to improve the safety, competitiveness and sustainability of their operations. Their ability to continue this level of spending is critical to meeting today’s and tomorrow’s freight demands. Safe, reliable, cost-effective and fuel-efficient freight rail transportation is essential to our future. Overreaching re-regulation will take us backward and won’t do a thing to solve current service challenges and supply chain problems.”

The American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association agreed, and said it could not support the bill despite the inclusion of funding for a study that would examine whether Class I railroads have taken steps to discourage interchange with short line and regional railroads. Overall, the bill would “insert aggressive government regulation into the complex, interconnected freight rail network, create an array of unintended consequences, and ultimately do more harm than good,” the ASLRRA said in a statement.

Rail shipper organizations, including the National Industrial Transportation League, welcomed the STB reauthorization bill.

“This bill is consistent with NITL’s longstanding policy goals and objectives by providing the Surface Transportation Board with enhanced tools to better hold the railroads accountable in providing reasonable service at reasonable rates,” Executive Director Nancy O’Liddy said. “Due to supply chain challenges complicated by railroad operation decisions, this bill also addresses the continued debilitating service problems being experienced by NITL members who move billions of dollars’ worth of freight on our nation’s rails.”

The Freight Rail Customer Alliance and the Private Railcar Food and Beverage Association issued similar statements backing the bill.

Herman Haksteen, president of the food and beverage group, says the bill will clarify railroads’ common carrier obligations, provide the STB with improved ways to determine if a railroad is meeting those obligations, and set service standards that can be enforced.

A House bill to reauthorize the Surface Transportation Board would allow private car owners to charge railroads fees for delaying their cars. Here a utility-owned coal gondola rolls down Crawford Hill on BNSF Railway in Nebraska. (Bill Stephens)

Rail labor was encouraged that the bill aims to clarify railroads’ common carrier obligations.

“In their race to the bottom, Class I freight railroads have chased short-term profits to benefit their Wall Street investors while reducing the industry’s total workforce by 29% in the last six years, leading to widespread deterioration of rail service for customers, untenable working conditions for employees, and an unsustainable freight rail system for the American people. While customers, workers, and consumers suffer the consequences, the railroads are making record-breaking profits,” said Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO.

Independent analyst Anthony B. Hatch says he expects the committee to advance the bill to the House floor, where it is unlikely to gain approval.

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