A bill will be introduced next week in the Senate that its co-sponsors say is aimed at improving the operations of the Surface Transportation Board (STB), the agency that oversees what is left of railroad regulation.
The bill, the "Surface Transportation Board Reauthorization Act of 2014," will be introduced by Sens. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and John Thune, (R-S.D.), the committee's ranking member. It would increase the STB's investigative authority, so it can launch its own investigations before a complaint is filed. It would streamline the schedule for rate reviews to make it easier for Board members to communicate, the lawmakers said. It would also advance key STB cases such as those involving rail revenue adequacy and mandatory reciprocal switching, where a railroad would be required to switch traffic to a competitor if it meant more cost-effective services for the shipper.
"It is far past time that America had a competitive and efficient rail transportation network," Rockefeller said in a joint statement. "Industries, businesses, consumers, and rail passengers around the country rely on our freight rail system, and when the system or its economic regulatory framework breaks down, so does our economy."
"While the Surface Transportation Board has made good faith efforts to address concerns of freight shippers and railroads, the current inefficiencies in the STB's operations are symptomatic of the need for common-sense reform," said Thune. "The modest bill that Chairman Rockefeller and I are introducing addresses many of the key inefficiencies and time delays I hear about from shippers by reforming the case review process."
The legislation comes on the heels of months of complaints about rail service delays and shipment backlogs. The problems initially were blamed on bad winter weather that paralyzed large swaths of the U.S. rail network. However, the issues extended well into the spring and early summer months, raising concerns about the system's reliability.
Rockefeller, who will retire when his current term is up this year, has long fought the railroads in support of coal interests that dominate his state's economy. He has been a proponent of rail re-regulation as a means of easing the economic burden on coal shippers whose business is virtually monopolized by the railroads.
The Staggers Rail Act of 1980 ended most economic regulation of the railroads.
In a related development, the two senators will chair a committee hearing on Wednesday to examine the impact of service backlogs, network congestion, and shortages of locomotives and railcars.