WASHINGTON, April 1, 2015 – The major backlogs and other problems in the rail industry that peaked about a year ago in the ag sector don’t appear to be repeating this year, but legislators and stakeholders are taking steps to prevent a repeat of the catastrophe.
Last year, past due orders for rail cars crippled grain transportation for months, leaving much of the 2013 crop in storage until just before the start of the 2014 harvest. On March 27 last year, BNSF Railway reported 16,470 orders more than four days late - the trigger for declaring an order past due, to their scheduled location.
Since then, BNSF has been issuing weekly updates to customers. One year after the backlog was at its worst, BNSF has slashed past due orders by about 92 percent, reporting 1,271 orders past due with an average of 9.7 days late.
In the wake of what happened last year, efforts are under way to reform the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB), which regulates the nation’s rail system. Most recently, the Senate Commerce Committee approved the Surface Transportation Board Reauthorization Act of 2015 (S.808) and a diverse group of rail customers joined together to create an industry coalition calling for STB reforms.
South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune, who chairs the Commerce Committee, sponsored S.808 along with Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fl., the committee’s ranking member. Aside from reauthorizing the STB through FY 2020, the bill contains several reforms that were included in a bill introduced last year by Thune, then the committee’s ranking member, and the then-chair of the Commerce Committee – former Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V. – chiefly fixing issues with STB communications and enforcement.
In a recent call with reporters, Thune said he and others worked with shippers, the STB, and the rail industry to bring the bill forward.
“It’s something that’s long overdue, and we think will help address the concerns that have been raised in the past few years about rail service issues, allow the (STB) to be more aggressive in trying to anticipate those problems and get ahead of them as opposed to responding after they become a crisis,” Thune said. “We have a bill that will do some good things for the rail industry in this country and for the shippers in this country who rely upon it.”
In a release, Thune said it was time for Congress to address “some inefficiencies in the (STB).” According to a separate release from the Commerce Committee, the STB hasn’t been reauthorized or “substantively reformed” since it was created in 1996.
In addition to legislative efforts, rail customers are also banding together to pursue reforms to the STB. The Rail Customer Coalition was formed recently and includes stakeholders from the agriculture, electricity, automotive manufacturing sectors and others. The coalition’s website lists 21 participating groups that support “practical reforms that would allow greater access to competitive freight rail service and that would make the STB operate more efficiently and effectively for all stakeholders.”
In a letter of support for S.808 addressed to Thune and Nelson, coalition members and others commended the two senators for introducing the bill and called on Congress to enact it into law.
“When issues arise between rail companies and shippers requiring oversight by the STB, it is imperative the STB be equipped with the proper tools to provide this oversight,” the groups said in the letter. “(S.808) would make important contributions in this regard.”
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