Senators move to strengthen freight rail oversight panel

Senators move to strengthen freight rail oversight panel
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A bipartisan pair of senators is planning to introduce legislation to beef up the panel of federal regulators that is supposed to oversee operations on the nation’s freight and passenger railways. 

The panel, the Department of Transportation's Surface Transportation Board (STB), has 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 a complaint with the STB that asked the panel to investigate the on-time performance of the Canadian National Railway (CN). 

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Sens. Jay RockefellerJohn (Jay) Davison RockefellerBottom Line World Health Day: It's time to fight preventable disease Lobbying World MORE (D-W.Va.) and John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneFrustration builds as infrastructure talks drag On The Money: Senate braces for nasty debt ceiling fight | Democrats pushing for changes to bipartisan deal | Housing prices hit new high in June Transit funding, broadband holding up infrastructure deal MORE (R-S.D.) made no mention of the Amtrak proceeding in an announcement about their legislative plans on Friday, but both lawmakers said the nation’s freight and passenger railways would benefit if the STB was beefed up. 

“It is far past time that America had a competitive and efficient rail transportation network,” Rockefeller said in a 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,” he continued. “It is essential that we act to meet the growing transportation needs of our country.”

Thune said he agreed the panel needed more power to regulate the nation’s railways. 

“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,” Thune said in a statement. 

“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,” he continued. “With additional reforms, the STB can better assist shippers and railroads alike, helping to ensure rail service problems are addressed in a balanced and timely manner.”

Amtrak’s recent STB complaint contends that the Canadian National Railway is "causing unacceptable train delays on the Illini/Saluki service that uses the CN line from Chicago to Carbondale, Ill.”

Amtrak shares tracks with freight rail companies for most of its routes outside of the Northeast U.S., which is home to its most profitable routes. 

The Transportation Department conducted a field hearing about the company's complaint in Fargo, N.D., on Thursday. 

Rockefeller and Thune’s offices said Friday their bill would “increase the STB’s investigative authority so it can launch its own investigations before a complaint is filed.” 

The lawmakers added that the measure would 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. 

Rockefeller and Thune said they intend to file their legislation when Congress returns to Washington next week.