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Rail Roundup: Congressmen press STB to address rail service

Lawmakers want Surface Transportation Board to pursue ‘practical updates and changes’

Tank cars at a railroad crossing. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Congressional leaders support shippers’ calls to improve freight rail service

A bipartisan group of members of Congress are concerned about how subpar freight rail service is affecting the fertilizer industry and the greater agricultural sector’s ability to compete in global markets.

In a Wednesday letter to the Surface Transportation Board, 51 congressional members representing states across the U.S. urged the board to address short-term challenges and utilize “practical updates and changes” to ensure that rail service improves. 

“At a time when global fertilizer supplies and global crop production are highly disrupted, imposing shipping curtailments on fertilizer inputs and grain, as recently proposed by Union Pacific, will cause major supply chain disruptions, hurt American farmers and exacerbate the food crisis considerably,” said the letter, referring to Union Pacific’s (NYSE: UNP) attempt earlier this spring to reduce the number of privately owned railcars on its network as a means to alleviate congestion. 

“We must ensure critical commodities reach essential industries and workers, such as America’s farmers, who are essential to feeding our nation and the world. Food is a national security issue and we must treat it as such,” the letter said. 

The letter noted that the board held a two-day hearing in late April to hear from the railroads, shippers and the unions about what might be the root causes of the deterioration in rail service at the beginning of 2022 as well as what could be viable, potential solutions. 

The letter also mentioned some of the testimony that came from shippers groups in March and April, including the Fertilizer Institute and the National Grain and Feed Association. Both groups told the board about the high costs that members incurred as a result of delays and congestion.

“By placing onerous restrictions on shippers without customer consultation, Class I carriers may run the risk of jeopardizing family-run farms and increasing the cost of food for consumers. …

While we respect the challenges of operating a major railroad, communication is essential when

taking steps to make the necessary improvements, including the imposition of service curtailments,” the letter said. “As we work toward solutions to meet the ongoing supply chain challenges, carriers and the STB should also be mindful of essential commodities and our country’s best public interest.

Earlier this week, the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO pressed congressional senators to redefine the common carrier obligation, a federal law that binds the railroads to provide customers with rail service.

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DOT: Localities can apply for federal grants to eliminate rail crossings

The U.S. Department of Transportation said Thursday that more than $573 million will become available to communities seeking to eliminate railroad crossings through a new grant program.

The Railroad Crossing Elimination Program aims to fund projects that create grade separations, such as overpasses and underpasses, as well as closures and track relocations. Projects can also be for the improvement of warning devices at crossings if related to a separation or relocation project, according to DOT. 

The Federal Railroad Administration will review and evaluate proposals on several factors: their potential to improve safety by eliminating crossings or improving existing highway-rail grade crossings; their ability to increase access to emergency services; and their ability to reduce emissions, provide economic benefit; and hire locally. At least 20% of available funding is designated for rural and tribal areas. 

The funding notice is on FRA’s website. It will also be published in the Federal Register. 

Funding for the grant program comes from the recently passed bipartisan infrastructure law. 

“Incidents this week in Missouri and California have underscored the tragic consequences of collisions between trains and vehicles that occur throughout the country,” DOT said. 

There were approximately 2,148 grade crossing incidents in 2021, resulting in 236 deaths and 662 injuries, according to DOT. 

Eliminating grade crossings could also help reduce delays at railroad crossings in local communities, DOT said. 

According to news reports, both the California and Missouri incidents occurred at rail crossings that didn’t have lights or mechanical arms. 

In rural Missouri on Monday, an Amtrak train struck a dump truck at a rail crossing, causing the train to derail. The derailment resulted in four deaths, including the truck driver. Amtrak said it is cooperating with the National Transportation Safety Board. Meanwhile, the truck driver’s widow has sued Amtrak and BNSF, the track’s owner, over the incident, while Amtrak and BNSF (NYSE: BRK.B) have sued the truck driver’s company. Train passengers reportedly are also considering filing suit.

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CN lays out capital investment program for 4 more US states

Canadian railway CN has announced even more plans to invest in its U.S. network, this time laying out how it expects to invest $195 million between four states in 2022.

In Iowa, CN expects to invest $20 million in maintenance and network improvements within the state, including replacing 14 miles of railroad track, installing 9,000 new railroad ties and rebuilding 14 road crossing surfaces, in addition maintenance work on bridges, culverts, signal systems and other track infrastructure. CN has spent more than $150 million in the state over the last five years, where it operates 574 railroad route miles. 

In Illinois, CN will spend $55 million in capital improvements. Its maintenance program will include replacing more than 4 miles of railroad track, installing 50,000 railroad ties and rebuilding 19 road crossing surfaces, among other maintenance projects. CN operates 905 railroad route miles in the states, where it has spent more than $350 million in capital improvements in the last five years.

In Mississippi, CN plans to invest $65 million in capital improvements in 2022. Its maintenance program includes replacing 5 miles of railroad track, installing 130,000 railroad ties and rebuilding 14 road crossing surfaces. The railway has spent more than $300 million in capital and maintenance projects in Mississippi, where it operates 575 railroad route miles. 

In Minnesota, CN expects to spend $55 million in 2022 to replace 5 miles of railroad track, install more than 105,000 railroad ties and rebuild 14 road crossing surfaces, among other maintenance and network improvement projects. CN has invested more than $300 million in the last five years in Minnesota, where it operates 426 railroad route miles. 

Over the past week, CN (NYSE: CNI) has been announcing how much it plans to spend in capital expenditures across its network in Canada and the U.S. Including the most recent announcements, CN’s capital investments will total nearly $1.98 billion in 2022. 

In 2021, CN (NYSE: CNI) dedicated $2.25 billion for capital expenditures, according to its 2021 annual report.

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Canadian Pacific inks labor agreements with eastern and Midwestern subsidiaries

Some short line railroads that are subsidiaries of Canadian Pacific have agreed to ratify their collective bargaining agreements with the railway.

The short lines are Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern South (DM&E) and the Canadian and U.S. operations of Central Maine & Quebec (CMQ), according to CP (NYSE: CP). The properties are in Quebec, Maine, Iowa, Missouri and Illinois. 

The latest agreement provides higher hourly wages for all approximately 430 employees. Representing labor was United Steel Workers Local 1976 on the CMQ Canada, SMART-Transportation Division on the CMQ U.S. and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen representing all train and engine employees on the DM&E South.

“CP welcomes the ratification of these three recently negotiated agreements that bring wage increases to hundreds of our dedicated employees,” Mark Redd, CP executive vice president of  operations said in a release. “We continue to work productively with all of our union partners to achieve long-term agreements that meet the needs of CP’s growing business and our industry-leading railroaders.”

Major CP crew bases that fall under the agreements include Ottumwa, Davenport, Marquette and Mason City, Iowa; Kansas City, Missouri; Savanna, Illinois; Brownville Junction, Maine; and Farnham, Quebec. 

CP also said it is hiring for various positions at all the locations listed above and some have immediate openings.

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Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Joanna Marsh.

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.