STB chairman sees ænew directionÆ for agency
Surface Transportation Board Chairman Daniel R. Elliott III said this week it is “time for a new direction” for his agency.
“I see my role as encouraging greater cooperation — and through it more harmony — between railroads and shippers,” Elliott said to the Midwest Shipper’s Association Minneapolis. This means moving the board philosophically away from a “court” toward a “problem-solving” model by using the agency’s expertise “to solve disputes before they result in formal case filings.”
STB would continue to provide shippers with a neutral forum to bring rate disputes and is committed to an expedited and transparent decision, he said. The board “has been more successful at it than is generally perceived. Of the 18 rate cases that the board has issued decisions in since 1996, 10 of those decisions went in favor of the shipper.”
Elliott discussed the agency’s efforts at informal dispute resolution, arbitration and mediation. He has increased staff of the STB’s Rail Customer and Public Assistance Program, which helps shippers informally settle disputes with railroads. The number of disputes handled by the program jumped from 93 in 2007 to 1,450 last year and he urged his listeners “to take advantage of the program. Not only is the price right — free — but it is also effective.”
The agency has also made it “smoother” for shippers to file formal complaints with the agency establishing informal ways to settle disputes and have made filing and litigating small rate cases easier and cheaper, he said.
For disputes of less than $1 million, STB will “force the railroads to engage in mediation of the dispute before STB staff at the outset of the process,’ Elliott said. ‘This alone has resulted in several quick settlements of the rate disputes. Then we quickly move forward with discovery and a quick decision from the board.
“We have had some tremendous successes with formal mediation efforts,” he said. “Mediation recently between a large chemical shipper and a Class I railroad led to the settling of four rate cases that would have taken years and tens of millions of dollars to litigate.”
The STB has “also created a second streamlined approach that offers more relief: up to $5 million. Basically, it took the existing complex process and stripped it down to the bare bones. This permitted the agency to reduce the expense of litigating the case by 80 percent and cut the litigation time in half.”
Elliott said he is also ” reinventing the agency’s long-dormant arbitration process. Since it was established a dozen years ago, nobody has used it. Nobody. We are looking into why it hasn’t worked and how we can make it a key part of the agency’s mission in the future.”
He also highlighted his testimony to the Senate Commerce Committee last month, where he stated plans to review three longstanding issues between railroads and shippers:
‘ Rules on railroad industry competition, including those that govern competitive access.
‘ Exemption rulings, which removed the federal protections of reasonable service and rates from various shippers in the 1980s.
‘ Filing fees in complaint cases. “Right now, a shipper has to pay a filing fee of over $20,000 to complain about service or other unreasonable practices. That does not seem right,” he said. ‘ Chris Dupin