Equitable, Timely Rail Shipments

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The crop production industry continues to undergo significant transformation and challenge associated with increasing demands imposed by changing markets, rising energy and manufacturing costs, foreign competition, consolidation, and ever increasing regulatory requirements. One of the most important issues facing the industry has to do with the lack of equitable and timely rail transport of inputs such as chemicals and fertilizers and outputs including grain and feed. The exorbitant cost and shipment delays associated with rail transport have brought this issue to the forefront of industry outrage and political debate.

Deregulation of the railroad industry including exemption from antitrust regulations, connected to passage of the Staggers Act of 1980, has led to a variety of continuing negative economic impacts on agribusiness and agriculture in general. The Act resulted in deregulation of competitive railroad activities and directed the organization now referred to as the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to “ensure rail customer access to rail competition and to maintain reasonable rates where there is an absence of effective competition.” Many critics of the STB have described the organization as failing its legislative directives miserably. Some of the most concerning issues that have resulted from the Staggers Act include the railroads’ continuing consolidation and monopoly of rail transport markets, the decline in rail service standards, and, most significantly, the rate increases that continue to negatively impact our businesses, our customers, and the economic health of the entire country.

A Class 1 Problem

Consolidations have led to a decline in the number of Class 1 railroad companies, which accounts for the fact that only four companies are now responsible for servicing the lion’s share of freight (averaging approximately 90% of rail shipment). In most cases, customers are held captive by dictates on delays and high cost since their transport needs are monopolized by one of the four Class 1 railroads. The prevailing attitudes of the railroad companies are best described as a “take it or leave it” provision of service. In cases where there are multiple carriers, customers find that railroad companies refuse to compete for their business.

It is also widely believed that lease agreements between short line railroad companies and Class 1 companies are designed to prevent movement of freight between competing Class 1 railroads. The STB allows railroad companies to take advantage of junctions, where cars can be transferred to another rail system, as a means of preventing rail customer access to competing companies.

Lack of healthy competition is known to drive prices higher. Railroad companies are also more likely to favor higher profit cargo from foreign sources than less favorable farm supply markets. Finally, even though Class 1 railroad companies continue to report record profits, maintenance and repairs of the railroad infrastructure are in decline.

The Need For Rail

Our country needs a financially viable and efficient railroad system that is accountable to rail customers and the nation for reliable service and reasonable rates. The monopoly that railroads have achieved does not accomplish either of these important and legislatively mandated objectives. As a recent example of the railroads’ abuse of market power, excessive fuel surcharges had been included in transport cost that did not coincide with the actual cost for specific rail shipments. Although a ruling by the STB did prohibit the railroads’ excessive fuel surcharge practice, it did not call for the reimbursement of lost revenues to the unfair profiteering.

The STB rate challenge process is also known to be so cumbersome and expensive that it provides essentially no protection to customers who depend on cost effective rail shipping service. In fact, the STB has actually made rulings that permit railroad companies to block customer access to competitors, which flies in the face of the legislative intent of the Staggers Act and documented objectives of the STB.

A coalition composed of hundreds of businesses and trade associations referred to as C.U.R.E. (Customers United for Rail Equity) is gaining valuable ground in urging Congress to repeal the freight rail industry’s antitrust exemptions, to revitalize the STB so that rail competition and reliable service at reasonable rates can once again be achieved, and to ensure that railroads reinvest in their infrastructure to meet the needs of their customers and the crop production industry as a whole.

Some of the champions pushing ahead with this include Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN), senior Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Sen. John Rocke­feller (D-WV) and Sen. Byron Dor­gan (D-ND). There are also other senators that are supportive of this issue.

However, this is a very tough issue since the railroad lobby effort is very strong and the railroad companies have strong opinions as to what is and is not needed. To state the case clearly, C.U.R.E. has declared that “railroads have an obligation to serve ALL rail customers, the nation, and the nation’s taxpayers that have nurtured and protected them for more than 150 years.” 

Turner is executive director for the Wisconsin Crop Production Association, Madison, WI.

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