Senate panel approves freight rail oversight changes

Senate panel approves freight rail oversight changes

The Senate committee that deals with transportation issues approved a bill to beef up the panel of federal regulators that is supposed to oversee operations on the nation’s freight and passenger railways. 

The measure, which was approved unanimously on Wednesday by the Senate Commerce Committee, emboldens the Department of Transportation's Surface Transportation Board (STB) to be more proactive in its oversight of freight rail companies that operate on tracks in the U.S. 

The measure was approved over the objection of freight rail companies, who argued that the rules that have been in place since the 1980s are “balanced.” 

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Shippers and agricultural groups strongly disagreed, arguing that the regulatory system has been balanced toward rail companies for too long. 

Senators on the panel sought to cast their measure as a set of modest change that will address shippers’ issues without undoing the nation’s freight rail system. 

“I would assure my colleagues that this is straight forward legislation that’s not designed to re-regulate the railroads, as some have said,” Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSenate panel approves GOP tax plan Republicans see rising Dem odds in Alabama Overnight Health Care: Nearly 1.5M sign up for ObamaCare so far | Schumer says Dems won't back ObamaCare deal if it's tied to tax bill | House passes fix to measure letting Pentagon approve medical treatments MORE (R-S.D.), who co-sponsored the legislation with the panel’s chairman, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), said. 

The rules at issue allow freight rail companies to charge higher rates to so-called captive shippers to maintain "adequate revenues."

The pricing rules, known as "Railroad Revenue Adequacy," are governed under a provision of a 1980 law known as the Staggers Act. 

They apply to the largest freight rail companies that are regulated by the Transportation department, known as Class 1 railroads. The classification covers Amtrak, BNSF Railway, CSX Transportation, Norfolk Southern Railway and other companies.

Shippers, and Amtrak, have complained about delays on tracks that shared between freight and passenger railways. 

Current rules prohibit the panel from launching an investigation of a freight rail company’s performance unless a formal complaint is filed.

The bill that was approved by the Senate committee Wednesday would “increase the STB’s investigative authority so it can launch its own investigations before a complaint is filed.” 

The measure would also speed up the railway panel’s timelines for process reviews of freight rail performance and “advance important STB proceedings” that have been stalled thus far. 

The group that lobbies for freight rail companies, the Association of American Railroads (AAR), offered a measure response to Wednesday’s vote, noting that several Senators considered offering amendments to the legislation, although none were added to the final product. 

“The AAR is pleased that several members of the committee recognized the need for further discussion and review of the bill, as they also expressed concern with its potential direction,” the railway group said in a statement that was provided to The Hill. “We look forward to working with committee members and addressing outstanding concerns with this legislation in order to find common ground so the nation’s railroads can continue to invest in maintaining and growing the capacity required to meet the shipping needs of the country.”

The STB has recently been at the center of a recent dispute between Amtrak and a Canadian freight rail operator over delays on tracks that are shared between the two companies in Illinois. 

Amtrak filed such a complaint recently that asked the panel to investigate the on-time performance of the Canadian National Railway (CN).