Economy

Lawmakers propose stronger oversight of rail service

Amtrak's Empire Builder train links Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon to
Chicago, Illinois.
Amtrak's Empire Builder train links Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon to Chicago, Illinois. MCT

The nation’s freight railroads, which have experienced service difficulties since late last year, could be getting more scrutiny from federal regulators under a Senate proposal.

Sens. Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, and John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, announced Friday that they planned to introduce legislation that strengthens the powers of the federal Surface Transportation Board, which oversees railroad rates and service issues.

Rockefeller and Thune, respectively, serve as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee. The panel will hold a hearing next week on rail service issues, which have been concentrated in the upper Midwest and have delayed shipments of grain, automobiles and coal and have disrupted some of Amtrak’s long-distance passenger trains.

“Industries, businesses, consumers, and rail passengers around the country rely on our freight rail system,” Rockefeller said in a statement, “and when the system or its economic regulatory framework breaks down, so does our economy.”

The STB has heard numerous complaints from shippers and lawmakers over the past several months. The board held a hearing on the rail service problems on Thursday in Fargo, N.D., following one in Washington in April.

Rockefeller and Thune want to empower the STB to be able to launch investigations into service problems before shippers file formal complaints.

“With additional reforms,” Thune said in a statement, “the STB can better assist shippers and railroads alike, helping to ensure rail service problems are addressed in a balanced and timely manner.”

Things began to unravel last year when a record grain harvest hit the rails, along with a growing volume of domestic crude oil. Then, a prolonged and severe winter compounded the congestion. Chicago, the nation’s busiest rail hub, became a major bottleneck.

In June, the STB required BNSF and Canadian Pacific to publicly report plans to resolve their backlog of orders for grain cars and weekly status reports on grain transportation.

Now, grain producers are gearing up for the next fall harvest at the same time they still haven’t moved all of last year’s bounty to market.

Railroads are also major transporters of finished automobiles and coal for electric power companies, and those businesses have been affected by the congestion as well.

Representatives from the grain and auto industries are scheduled to testify in the Senate hearing next week, as is the head of the rail industry’s leading advocacy group.

Ed Hamberger, the president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, said in a statement Friday that the country has “the best freight rail system in the world” as a result of the “current balanced regulatory framework.”

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