Reported by Bill Stephens for Trains.
There were more questions than answers on Tuesday as federal regulators sought ways to remedy railroad service problems that defy a quick fix because they are rooted in a shortage of train crews.
Shippers told the Surface Transportation Board that rail service has deteriorated, with delays mounting as transit times have in some cases doubled from normal levels. The slowdown in rail network velocity has forced shippers to curtail or suspend production due to late empty or loaded freight cars, and even prompted farmers to consider culling their herds and flocks for lack of feed.
Railroad performance metrics need to improve soon, STB Chairman Martin J. Oberman told the railroads. “The country is going to have a lot of trouble if 30 days and 60 days from now these numbers aren’t much different,” he says. “If we’re relying only on hiring, I don’t see you being able to get there in 30, or 60 or 90 days. We’re going to miss the planting season, we’ve got fuel problems. That’s what I’m concerned about.”
A range of shipper associations, joined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, asked the STB to take several steps that they say will improve service and spotlight problems in the rail network.
The board should clarify railroads’ common carrier obligations, impose penalties for poor service and inefficient use of privately owned freight cars, and expand reciprocal switching. They also sought a simpler way to challenge rates, urged the board to require railroads to provide first- and last-mile service data, and said railroads should have to file annual service assurance plans. And they applauded the board’s proposal to adopt a new rule that would expand its emergency service powers.
Oberman, during the first day of a planned two-day hearing, asked shippers if there were any steps the board could take in the next 30 to 90 days that would improve service.
Shippers were at a loss as to what remedies the board could adopt immediately. “If we had a silver bullet we would have brought it to you,” says Chris Jahn, CEO of the American Chemistry Council, the trade group representing chemical manufacturers.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg acknowledged that there wasn’t much the board could do in the face of crew shortages. “These are complex issues,” he says. “There’s no single step available to deliver ideal freight rail service overnight.”
But Buttigieg raised concerns about train crew layoffs during the pandemic that began in the spring of 2020. Since then, traffic has rebounded but railroads have struggled to retain and hire conductors in a tight job market.
“First and foremost, we must invest in rail workers, who keep our economy running. Turnover is still far above normal levels, which presents both safety and workforce concerns,” he says. “We need a full and robust workforce to keep people and goods moving across the country.”
Jewel H. Bronaugh, deputy secretary of the Agriculture Department, told the board that when railroads charge unreasonable rates and provide poor service, farmers struggle to make ends meet, consumers spend more at the grocery store, and U.S. agricultural products can’t compete in the global market.
She also was critical of Union Pacific’s plan to meter traffic as a way to ease congestion. “USDA understands that with limited capacity, some traffic must be prioritized, and reductions in the number of cars online may help the system move,” Bronaugh says. “However, fertilizer and agriculture commodities are not the commodities to deprioritize, especially as we now enter the growing season.”
PSR Looms Large
Shippers and rail labor blamed service issues on Precision Scheduled Railroading and related job cuts over the past five years. The loss of 45,000 rail jobs, combined with the idling of locomotives, freight cars, and yards, has gutted the rail system and made service problems inevitable, they claimed.
They also said Wall Street’s focus on ever-lower operating ratios has led to relentless cost-cutting at the big railroads, with profits put ahead of safety and service. “Today’s freight rail network is not working for anyone other than railroad investors,” says Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Division of the AFL-CIO.
Jeremy Ferguson, president of the SMART-TD union, told the board that six years ago — prior to implementation of PSR — railroads had a robust workforce, an ample supply of locomotives and freight cars, and a put a priority on safety. That’s all gone now, he says.
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