STB orders data from all rail shipments in bid to end backlogs

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, Oct. 8, 2014 - The federal Surface Transportation Board is ordering some of the nation's largest rail carriers to report a wide array of data on train movements, a step designed to ease the rail backlog problems in the upper Midwest.

The order requires all Class I railroads - those with operating revenues of $250 million or more for three consecutive years - to file weekly data reports. The official order on the STB website says this move will “promote industry-wide transparency, accountability, and improved service.”

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“Although the Board currently monitors various metrics of railroad performance, the Board agrees that there is a need for broader standardized performance data from the railroad industry as it continues to address existing service challenges,” STB said in the order.

The new requirement supersedes an earlier request for data from Canadian Pacific Railway Co. and BNSF Railway. Those reports were requested after an April hearing that reviewed the problems the carriers were facing moving fertilizer for 2014 planting and grain from the 2013 harvest.

The new order applies to all Class I carriers. It also calls for data from all shipments, not just those in the agricultural sector. Information requested includes: average speeds, dwell times, number of cars loaded and emptied, as well as weekly number of grain cars ordered, loaded, billed, overdue and canceled in each state.

“The United States rail system is an interconnected network, and one carrier's service problems can affect the performance of other carriers,” the Board said in its order. “Although the severity differs, shippers have reported problems on multiple carriers.  Thus, the Board views the network as a whole, and seeks to better understand performance across the entire network.”

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North Dakota continues to feel the brunt of the backlog problem, and some say rail movement of the Bakken crude oil from the western part of the state is a big reason the rest of the country has problems getting grain to export terminals. U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., has been vocal on the issue and was pleased with the announcement, saying it will ultimately benefit the customers of the rail industry.

“Today, the STB is taking needed action to hold the railroads accountable, require more transparency from the railroads on all products shipped on the rails, and make sure all products - whether grain, oil, coal, or anything else - are treated equally and fairly in how they are transported,” Heitkemp said in a statement.

In the weekly reports to the STB filed last Thursday, BNSF reported 2,905 rail cars past due in North Dakota and 4,119 past due nationally, a 41 percent increase from the previous week. CP's report notes 3,089 open grain car requests. Both companies were making steady progress on their backlogs over the summer, but the beginning of the 2014 corn and soybean harvest have forced the companies to take on new orders.

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