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Rail union federation urges senators to revise common carrier obligation

TTD says amending definition could help STB compel railroads to improve service

The Transportation Trades Department wants senators to revise the common carrier obligation. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

The Transportation Trades Department is asking Congressional senators to consider revising the common carrier obligation so its meaning is more clear and enforceable.

The common carrier obligation defines the freight railroads’ role in delivering bulk goods, and the Surface Transportation Board uses it as a basis in rendering decisions. 

“It is clear that the major U.S. freight railroads are failing to meet their statutory ‘common carrier’ obligation to provide freight rail customers with ‘reasonable service’ at ‘reasonable rates.’ …,” TTD President Greg Regan said in a Tuesday letter to 21 senators. “However, the non-specific language used, and lack of details, in the current statute have resulted in uncertainty for both shippers and carriers and made enforcement of the obligation extremely challenging. Therefore, we urge you to help remedy this crisis by supporting legislation reauthorizing the Surface Transportation Board that would 1) clearly define this element of the ‘common carrier’ obligation and 2) provide the STB with more effective mechanisms to enforce this obligation.”

The 21 senators, representing both Democrats and Republicans, signed a May 23 letter asking STB Chairman Marty Oberman to address recent rail service disruptions.

In the letter, Regan said U.S. rail unions and rail shipper associations have signed a joint statement of common carrier principles that could help Congress define what should constitute reasonable service. 

Regan also urged senators to draft legislation that would expand STB’s ability to ensure the common carrier obligation is met. Expanding STB’s role is something some industry stakeholders advocate as Congress takes up the reauthorization of STB in later sessions.

Regan attributed recent service issues to the head-count reduction cuts over the last six years, resulting in a shortage of workers needed to meet market demand. The unions have attributed those job cuts to precision scheduled railroading, a method of streamlining operations. 

“We recognize that the STB has utilized its existing authority to respond to the service problems and appreciate all that the agency has done,” Regan said. “However, additional action is needed to address the continuing and serious nature of these service problems and the railroads’ failure to act willfully to fix the problems that they created. In closing, we urge you to support legislation to provide the STB with additional authority to ensure the reasonable service that shippers deserve and that is necessary for the railroads to satisfy their common carrier obligations.”

TTD comprises of 37 member unions and is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, according to its website.

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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.