Class I railroads forced to share intermodal network efficiency metrics

Class I railroads forced to share intermodal network efficiency metrics

The data that the US government mandated railroads make public could strengthen the hands of shippers during contract negotiations.

WASHINGTON — Intermodal shippers are poised to get a closer look at just how efficient their freight is being moved, after US federal rail regulators adopted a new rule Wednesday requiring all Class I railroads report detailed weekly performance metrics.

The US Surface Transportation Board, the nation's top rail regulatory agency, finalized the long-anticipated rule Wednesday. All Class I railroads in the United States and Canada will now be required to issue weekly, semiannual, and occasional reports on:

  • System-wide average train speeds for services

  • Weekly average terminal dwell times

  • Total number of loaded and empty cars that haven't moved in more than 120 hours

  • Weekly number of trains delayed by more than six hours

  • Weekly number of grain cars loaded and billed

  • State-by-state running totals of new and canceled orders

  • Grain shuttle plan versus performance metrics

  • Average coal loadings

It’s above and beyond the published average train speeds that shippers and industry analysts have been relegated to rely on for years. Although those figures are an indicator of service reliability, they in no way provide a comprehensive appraisal of rail service. 

The final rulemaking comes in direct response to the widespread service problems that emerged in the winter of 2013 to 2014, when inclement weather roiled rail networks across North America.

Rail interests actively lobbied against the rule, arguing the reporting process would be too burdensome as railroads collect data differently and later indicating that service metrics — at least indicated by average train speeds — have already improved to pre-2013 levels.

Shippers, however, complained railroads have for years been able to maintain limited visibility of their service metrics and speculated that the railroads have been prioritizing domestic energy shipments, such as oil and frac sand, over other commodities. The rail industry has vehemently denied such accusations, saying it handles all freight equally. 

Over months of public hearings, shippers urged the STB to fashion more granular data requests, including corridor specific performance and a broader array of commodities. Railroad interests, by contrast, sought to limit and narrow the proposed requests.

“The board adopted a middle ground,” the STB said in a statement Wednesday. While broadening the scope of data beyond average train car speeds, “in order to reduce the burden on the rail industry, the board also tailored the requests to information that railroads currently collect as part of their internal data runs.”

Wednesday’s news is a victory for shippers who have argued for greater transparency and accountability in the rail industry. It also flies in the face of the rail lobby, which just recently requested the STB halt all major rulemakings in the wake of the November US presidential election.

A week after the election, the Association of American Railroads, the largest US rail lobby, called on the agency to put a pause on all major rulemakings until president-elect Donald Trump and his incoming administration are installed.

"The policy landscape in Washington, DC dramatically shifted on election day, and as such, the freight rail industry believes the STB should suspend its misguided quest to reregulate freight rail," Edward R. Hamberger, AAR president and CEO, said in a statement.

Although many regulations now undergoing review have been waiting in the wings for years — the most recent rulemaking having been discussed for at least two — Hamberger cautioned the board against “midnight rulings.”

In particular, Hamberger took aim at a rule proposed by the STB in July that would enable freight shippers without access to other transportation modes to request their freight be moved to a competing rail line. That proposal — much like Wednesday's rule — followed years of shipper-rail regulatory battles

Hamberger indicated that there is at least some uncertainty as to whether any rules made during the Obama Administration's last few months will survive the first few months of a Trump Administration.

When Congress reauthorized the STB in 2015 for the first time since its creation, it expanded the board from three members to five. Trump is expected to nominate three new members next year, which will then be subject to Senate confirmation.

"The bottom line," Hamberger said, "is that great uncertainty is looming not just over the freight rail industry, but the entire economy. Now is not the time for regulators to jam through rules and inject even more government-induced uncertainty."

Contact Reynolds Hutchins at reynolds.hutchins@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @Hutchins_JOC.