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Wisconsin senator introduces bill aimed at improving railroad service

Legislation seeks to clarify federal guidelines for rail service standards

A freight train. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin has introduced legislation that seeks to clarify what the railroads’ obligations are in providing good service.

The bill, called the Reliable Rail Service Act, aims to better define the common carrier obligation, which are the terms a railroad must abide by when working with a bulk commodities rail shipper to haul goods. 

The common carrier obligation bonds railroads to transport any freight that has been properly tendered on reasonable terms and conditions, according to the Association of American Railroads.

In a Tuesday news release announcing the bill, Baldwin, a Democrat, described the obligation as a requirement that calls for rail carriers to serve the wider shipping public “on reasonable request.” It is a provision of the 1980 Staggers Rail Act that passed when there was concern about the long-term viability of freight rail transportation in the country due to the industry’s financial troubles, according to the news release.  

Recent rail service issues, such as delays and the timely delivery of railcars, were aired out and analyzed at an April public hearing before the Surface Transportation Board. This year’s service problems have caused some industry stakeholders to question whether the common carrier obligation needs to be redefined in order to make its terms less ambiguous. 

“Clearly defining this ambiguous principle has taken greater importance as the railroad industry faces consolidation and has undertaken Wall Street practices that reduced capacity on the rail network,” the news release said. 


In addition to statutorily clarifying the common carrier obligation, the bill also seeks to establish specific criteria for STB to consider when determining whether a rail carrier has violated its obligation, Baldwin’s office said.

This criteria would include tracking service impacts resulting from reductions or changes in service frequency, employment levels and equipment availability. It would also factor in the availability and maintenance of reasonable local service schedules and delivery windows and whether the service reasonably meets the local operational and service requirements of the customer requesting transportation.

“The Reliable Rail Service Act gives the board necessary statutory clarity along with significant discretion and flexibility to account for variations unique to local rail carrier and shipper circumstances, which will provide transparency for all stakeholders while improving STB’s oversight to help address our nation’s freight railroad supply chain challenges and lower costs for consumers,” according to a summary of the bill from Balwin’s office.

The bill has garnered support from the unions and numerous shipper groups representing agricultural and chemical interests.

“Manufacturers and consumers can’t keep being subjected to one rail crisis after another — we need Congress to act,” said Chris Jah, American Chemistry Council president and CEO, in Baldwin’s news release. “Sen. Baldwin has put together a sensible solution aimed at addressing ongoing freight rail service failures. This is a problem everyone should be interested in solving. We urge Democrats and Republicans to come together to pass legislation that will ensure railroads live up to their obligation to provide reliable service.”

Said Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO in the same release: “We applaud Sen. Baldwin for introducing the Reliable Rail Service Act to help remedy the freight rail service crisis by clearly defining the reasonable service obligation and providing the Surface Transportation Board with more effective mechanisms to enforce this obligation.”

A similar bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Freight Rail Shipping Fair Market Act, seeks to guide STB on how to resolve complaints related to compliance with the common carrier obligation. That legislation was introduced into the House in early August by Rep. Donald Payne Jr., D-N.J., chair of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials. 

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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.