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Freight rail shippers press STB to consider additional data requirements

Association of American Railroads doesn’t agree with rail shippers’ requests

Rail shippers press the Surface Transportation Board on rail data. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

A coalition of freight rail shippers is still urging the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to press for additional rail service data from the Class I railroads, according to a filing last week.

The shippers say the additional data might help better inform the board and other rail stakeholders on how to resolve rail service issues that arise at the first mile and last mile. Furthermore, the U.S. operations of the Class I railroads already collect the data and so it wouldn’t cause an additional burden, said the rail shippers coalition, consisting of the Freight Rail Customer Alliance (FRCA), National Coal Transportation Association, National Industrial Transportation League and Private Railcar Food and Beverage Association. 

“The data is needed and likely already exists but is not being shared with the board. Little burden attaches to reporting data that the carriers already compile and utilize. Aggregate data is exactly what is needed for this purpose and eliminates any confidentiality issues. There is more than enough justification for the board to begin the process,” said last Thursday’s letter signed by FRCA Representative Ann Warner.

The Class I railroads already report certain data points to the STB in accordance with the proceeding Ex Parte 724. These data include average train speeds and dwell times.

But the rail shippers last week reiterated why they think the STB should proceed with requesting additional data from Class I railroads. One reason is that they think the data might help rail stakeholders better understand the nuances of rail service under precision scheduled railroading, an operational model that seeks to streamline operations. These nuances include data gathered when railcars shift from unit trains to manifest service, which could be valuable for smaller and non-unit train shippers, according to the coalition.

The shippers also said that data collected on aggregate performance could also help the board understand how rail carriers deploy resources within the contexts of rail volumes, the economy and operating conditions. 

“The board now receives no data at all regarding this aspect of service that is vital for many shippers. Use of aggregated data also removes any confidentiality concerns,” the shippers coalition said. 

The shippers also say the data would help the board determine whether the Class I railroads are fulfilling common carrier obligations.

“As the railroads know very well, many shippers, particularly smaller and carload ones, lack the leverage to negotiate contractual service protections. The common carrier obligation, which does not apply to exempt traffic, is usually difficult to enforce, especially for those same shippers,” the coalition said. “The bigger point is that the board has an interest in and even a responsibility to ascertain whether carriers are meeting their common carrier obligations in the aggregate. The board cannot carry out those functions if it has no data, as is the case now.”

The rail shippers’ letter is available here.

The rail coalition’s letter was in response to ones from the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) in which both parties said that the data that the STB collects is already sufficient.

“I urge the board to resist the FRCA letter’s invitation to delve into a sweeping but extra-regulatory effort that will benefit neither shippers or railroads,” AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies said in a Sept. 10 letter to the board. AAR’s letter was referencing the rail shipper coalition’s Aug. 31 letter, which had raised the issue before the board of whether STB should require additional data to be collected.

AAR questioned last month the need to require additional reporting requirements, saying that the railroads have been working with shippers, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, to modify schedules and adjust service levels. Furthermore, the railroads have already been sharing with the STB their plans for responding to increased demand for service as the economy rebounds, AAR said. 

“Multiple rulemaking proceedings over the last several years have resulted in railroads being required to report extensive service data to the STB on a weekly basis. The benefit obtained through imposition of those additional regulatory burdens has been far from clear. And as the board knows, railroads also have on their own initiative invested to create a variety of tools to make data available directly to their customers,” AAR said. 

AAR also said that uniform data collection wouldn’t be practicable or meaningful and that the rail shippers have been unclear over what kind of metrics should be included in the data collection. Rail data is also limited in how it can help understand causality or the difference in rail service between commodities and other railroads, and first- and last-mile data is also challenging because of variations in geography, networks, resources and supply chain partners. 

“AAR has consistently raised concerns that commodity or customer-level service reporting requirements present distorted views of overall rail service. Any such requirements would incentivize litigation by interest groups seeking to prioritize certain favored business or commodities through political influence, rather than sound and safe railroad operations benefiting all members of the supply chain,” AAR said. 

AAR continued, “Trying to enable customers to compare their service at the carload level with the service of other customers in different locations with different schedules, facilities and business arrangements is a recipe for frustration, confusion and endless litigation. And it is an effort that would require the board to collect, process and protect enormous amounts of commercially sensitive data and Information,” AAR said. “There is no reason to believe such a system will result in improved service for any customer. Indeed, such a system may create perverse incentives for railroads not to offer premium service to those customers who wish to purchase it.”

AAR’s letter is available here.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Joanna Marsh.

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Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.