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Rail service becomes bigger political football

Bipartisan group of 19 senators urges STB to take action on rail service

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Bipartisan agreement that rail service is poor 

As described by FreightWaves’ Joanna Marsh, a group of 19 senators from 13 states wrote a letter to Surface Transportation Board (STB — the federal agency tasked with economic regulation of the freight railroads) Chairman Marty Oberman urging him to take action on inadequate freight rail service. The eight Democrats and 11 Republicans represented coal states (West Virginia and Ohio) agricultural states (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Idaho, North Dakota, Kansas, Florida and Missouri), a chemicals state (Louisiana), and Arizona. That coalition is an expansion from the much narrower one that was involved in freight rail issues in years past. Under more railroad-friendly iterations of the STB, former Sens. Al Franken of Minnesota and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia were often rail shippers’ most vocal advocates. Rail shippers have always been major constituents in those states, but what’s changed, I believe, is that rail service levels have been especially bad the past two years and it’s clear that the current STB chairman agrees with the ideas expressed in the letter. I expect the STB to use the letter as ammunition as it demands more service data from the railroads and perhaps takes further steps. 

An indicator of subpar service levels, BNSF’s intermodal weekly average number of trains held per day is currently elevated. Source: Surface Transportation Board and FreightWaves.

According to Flexport, maritime space is available on the trans-Pacific eastbound lane. Demand remains impaired by the COVID-related shutdowns in Shanghai, rising inventory levels for general merchandise (e.g., last week, Walmart and Target reported that their inventory levels were 33% and 43% above year-ago levels, respectively) and shippers avoiding the U.S. West Coast given the labor uncertainty. Shippers are clearly nervous about how bad congestion might be at the West Coast ports with a potential work slowdown amid contentious negotiations between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA).  

As excess capacity has increased, the Freightos Baltic Daily Index has fallen in recent days. Source: FreightWaves SONAR. 

CNBC rolled out a new Supply Chain Heat Map to highlight trans-Pacific service levels. The heat map, as described by CNBC journalist Lori Ann LaRocco, takes data from numerous data providers, including FreightWaves SONAR, and should be an efficient way to monitor the flow of goods originating in China. The heat map currently shows that there is little container availability at the Ports of Ningbo and Qingao. Meanwhile, truck congestion remains at the Port of Shanghai due to the lingering impact of the COVID shutdowns. 

Food Dive describes the challenges that CPGs face as they look to lessen their environmental footprints through improved packaging. Beverage companies have made pledges with deadlines for reducing their use of virgin plastic, which is a good place to start because recycled plastic resins use about 80% less energy to produce than virgin resins. However, timelines have run into constraints associated with product availability and price. 

The Best in Packaging award winners from Dieline may spur creativity. This year’s award winners found ways to reduce plastics, utilize reusable containers and stand out from the crowds of competing products. In particular, I like how the packaging on the Sitko Pizza box evokes the shape of dough and manages to look differentiated from other pizza boxes. 

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Michael Baudendistel

Mike Baudendistel is an analyst and Market Expert at FreightWaves focusing on the railroad, intermodal and transportation equipment industries. Prior to joining FreightWaves, Baudendistel served as a senior sell-side equity research analyst covering the publicly traded railroads, suppliers that manufacture and lease railroad equipment, and suppliers that manufacture trucks, trailers, engines and other components. He has 14 years of experience following the freight transportation industry with experience that also touched the truckload, Jones Act barge and domestic logistics industries. He is a CFA Charterholder.