THIS YEAR OR NEXT, Congress must deal with shipper complaints arising out of the Staggers Rail Act of 1980.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee is attempting to combine changes in the 1980 law - which dramatically reduced government controls over rates railroads charge for hauling freight - with legislation aimed at selling the government's interest in Conrail to the public.Our view that the Conrail matter should be considered separately in no way should imply that shipper complaints over the Interstate Commerce Commission's
interpretation of Staggers should not be dealt with.
Ever since its implementation in 1980, the ICC has taken such a broad
interpretation of the deregulatory provisions in Staggers that the carriers have had almost total freedom to do as they wish.
Though this has not had a drastic impact on shippers that have access to either more than one railroad or can ship their freight by other modes (which is the majority of shippers), it appears to have created a severe problem for companies captive to a single carrier.
Even more important, the ICC's routine approval of virtually everything the railroads propose has created a strong distrust of the fairness of the decision-making process at the agency.
The commission has rejected carrier proposals and proposed some major changes in its functions, but until the final rules are issued it is unclear whether the agency is serious or merely reacting to political pressure from Congress.
The shippers are aware of this and - given the ICC's past track record - want some sort of assurance their voices will be heard and complaints dealt with in a fair and equitable manner.
On the other hand, there are those - and some of them are in the Reagan administration - who think the ICC should cease to exist in a deregulated environment. "There's no reason for an overseer of surface transportation regulation when there is little or no surface transportation regulation, they are fond of saying. To our mind, however, the reduced regulation is exactly why you need the ICC.
In the best of all possible worlds, the fierce competition that comes from a deregulated environment should take care of unfair and illegal practices. But as deregulation continues, we have seen that transportation companies are attempting to improve inadequate profits by combining with one another to increase efficiencies and reduce costs with greater economies of scale. Oligarchies of companies are forming in all transportation modes. Also companies that combine modes are forming. Nothing is wrong with this, within reason. But the need for oversight of these fewer and larger companies is ever apparent.
There is a need for the ICC. More important, there is a need for an ICC that is knowledgeable concerning the needs and costs of the surface transportation industry but that is ever willing to redress shippers' complaints of unfair and illegal practices by transportation companies. If we did not have the ICC, we would end up having to create it again.