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Rail regulators want to speed emergency service responses

The Surface Transportation Board has issued a notice of proposed rulemaking that would modify existing emergency service rules so the board could “act on its own initiative” to respond to service emergencies.

The proposed rule would also set up an accelerated process to tackle acute service emergencies.

Comments on the proposed rulemaking will be due by May 23. Replies to comments are due by June 6. 

The notice, issued Friday, comes as the STB said it has heard from stakeholders over the past year about inconsistent and unreliable rail service with reports of unreliability increasing in recent weeks.  

Issues cited by the STB included tight car supply, unfilled railcar orders, increased origin dwell time for released unit trains, missed switches, delays for carload and bulk traffic and ineffective customer assistance. Stakeholder comments also focused on crew shortages and an inability to move trains, the board said.

“The rail service challenges shippers are currently experiencing are amplified by certain recent conditions but are not new,” STB Chairman Marty Oberman said in a release. “For several years the Board has gathered information showing that the existing emergency service rules are too cumbersome to be of use to shippers in need of immediate relief.” 

The proposed rule would make it possible for a shipper to receive relief in a short but reasonable amount of time during an emergency, the board said. 

As part of the upcoming public hearing this Tuesday and Wednesday the STB has asked executives of CSX (NASDAQ: CSX), Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC), Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) and BNSF (NYSE: BRK.B) to testify. The board will also hear from unions and shippers’ groups.

Speakers include U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Dr. Jewel H. Bronaugh, and Commissioner Carl W. Bentzel of the Federal Maritime Commission.A full list of speakers will be available here. 

“Given the persistent and serious problems presently affecting freight rail service, it is important for the Board to consider new approaches for providing much needed relief to rail customers, not only for the customers’ benefit, but for the well-being of the nation’s economy and all consumers,” Oberman said.

The board also noted that even though it is conducting this hearing and issuing the notice of proposed rulemaking, it will still take up the issue of reciprocal switching. Oberman has made that proceeding a priority for the board’s attention this year.

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Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Joanna Marsh.