Bill would reform rail transportation oversight committee

Bill would reform rail transportation oversight committee

Sponsors say Surface Transportation Reform bill would help prevent rail service challenges like those experienced last year from happening again

U.S. Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., have come together to sponsor a bill that they say would reform the Surface Transportation Board and help prevent future rail service disruptions.

Related: Agriculture's discussion of rail service issues continues

Thune and Nelson respectively serve as the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Their bill is S. 808, the Surface Transportation Board Reauthorization Act of 2015.

Sponsors say Surface Transportation Reform bill would help prevent rail service challenges like those experienced last year from happening again (Canadian Pacific photo)

The STB oversees the economics of the U.S. freight rail system. Its three members manage railroad rate reasonableness, mergers, line acquisitions, new rail-line construction, line abandonment, and other rail issues.

The STB was created by Congress in 1996 as the successor to the Interstate Commerce Commission. Since that time, the STB has not been reauthorized or substantively reformed, Thune said.

"While the STB has been working diligently to ensure the major rail service issues experienced last year by shippers and businesses in South Dakota and other states across the U.S. don't happen again, last year's crisis highlighted some of the inefficiencies that currently exist at the agency," Thune said.

Related: Grain shippers report much-improved railroad service

Specifically, Thune suggested oversight efforts have identified causes of "wasteful and unnecessary" delays in adjudicating cases that affect rail shippers, freight operators, and ultimately consumers.

"These reforms will help make the STB a more efficient, effective, and accountable agency for the benefit of shippers and railroads alike," he said.

The bill calls for an expansion of board membership from three to five, and allows for board members to discuss matters with later disclosure in lieu of a public meeting notice.

The bill would also allow the board to initiate some investigations, not just respond to complaints, and would require the STB to establish a database of complaints and prepare quarterly reports on them, Thune and Nelson said.

Related: USDA rail report confirms grain shipping troubles of 2013-14

Further changes authorized by the bill include an alteration of the review process by requiring the board to establish timelines for stand-alone rate cases and a report on rate case methodology. The bill would codify an arbitration process for certain rate disputes and carrier complaints.

Thune said the bill could help alleviate future rail shipping issues like those experienced throughout 2013 and 2014. A similar bill was introduced, but not approved, last year.

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