Viewpoint: Why is rail being left out of regulatory discussions?

Maritime and trucking sectors get plenty of attention, but rail is apparently an afterthought

View article in its entirety at the FreightWaves.

— Authors: Jason Doering and Matt Parker

This commentary was written by professional locomotive engineers Jason Doering and Matt Parker. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FreightWaves or its affiliates.

Two recent articles published by FreightWaves captured our attention. These two articles detailed actions proposed by both Congress and federal regulatory agencies to address safety and service concerns in the maritime and trucking sectors, some of which are affecting the global supply chain.

One article spoke of pending actions by both Congress and the Federal Maritime Administration to rein in discriminatory practices by overseas ocean carriers that, to the detriment of the supply chain, prioritize profits over service and contract obligations.

As we read reports about these measures, we wondered — what about rail?

Many of the same problems exist for customers of the Class I railroads; for evidence, one need look no further than the two days of testimony before the Surface Transportation Board in May 2019 regarding the matter of Ex Parte No. 754. That hearing was a cavalcade of stories from rail shippers detailing increased charges amid substantially degrading service due to the combined effects of a slashed workforce and precision scheduled railroading.

This situation has not improved. Rather, in many ways, it has worsened. We hope that the current chairman of the STB, Martin J. Oberman, takes this degradation of service into account and applies the same level of urgency when examining service practices the Class I railroads have adopted as has the Federal Maritime Administration in addressing similar issues with ocean carriers.

The other article read like a wish list of enhanced regulations from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and laws from Congress to further promote safety in the trucking industry. We find this intriguing in that similar action by the Federal Railroad Administration and Congress to address such matters in the rail industry has not yet occurred, even after being mandated for almost 15 years. 

When such imposition of regulations and laws affecting the nation’s rail carriers is proposed, we see a pattern where industry executives complain about speculative detrimental effects on carrier profitability, and the responsible agencies and lawmakers immediately back away rather than persist, kicking the can into the indeterminate future.

Fiscally, by comparison, the story in the trucking industry is that most major carriers are struggling to reduce their operating ratios, which typically run in the high 80s to low 90s. Meanwhile, most Class I rail carriers have lowered their operating ratios below 60 and are boasting of record profits.

Why such reluctance to take federal action addressing matters of concern in the rail industry, particularly regarding safety? Do federal policymakers not understand the premise we have pushed here in Nevada, which is that the public bears a substantial risk as the result of the movement of certain freight by rail?

Another way we have expressed this to policymakers is that, while trains don’t fall out of the sky, resulting in a near-certain loss of life, trains do occasionally send carloads of really nasty stuff rocketing into adjacent areas when things go very wrong. 

Lac-Megantic, Casselton, Graettinger, Tempe — the list goes on of communities that have experienced firsthand the devastation that can result from a railroad accident. We have been fortunate to avoid a major catastrophe with many lives lost in the U.S. as trains have grown to excessive lengths, a result of PSR’s profits-before-service focus.

While it is evident federal regulatory agencies and lawmakers appear to be taking a proactive stance with regard to addressing service and safety issues in the maritime and motor carrier sectors by examining enhanced regulation, we are again left to pose a question.

Why does the rail industry, where so many similar problems exist in serving customers and making the supply chain run smoothly, appear to be left out of these discussions?

Perhaps it’s time for those reading this to begin pressing their elected federal representatives for an answer to this question.

About the authors

Jason Doering is a professional locomotive engineer who serves as chairman and director of the Nevada State Legislative Board for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers-Transportation Division.

Matt Parker is a professional locomotive engineer who serves as chairman of the Nevada State Legislative Board for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

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