WASHINGTON — A rail labor union coalition has proposed that Congress require federal regulators to conduct an annual “stress test” that would determine whether the Class I railroads have enough people, equipment, and infrastructure capacity to meet freight demand.
The recommendation, made Nov. 10 by the Transportation Trades Department (TTD) of the AFL-CIO, comes amid ongoing rail service problems due to crew shortages at the big four U.S. Class I railroads, BNSF Railway, CSX Transportation, Norfolk Southern, and Union Pacific.
The labor coalition, which has been stung by a 30% reduction in U.S. Class I railroad employment since 2015, says the Surface Transportation Board needs expanded tools to ensure that railroads can meet their common carrier obligations.
“Such a human and capital infrastructure ‘stress test’ would proactively ensure the railroads could indeed meet their common carrier obligation rather than waiting until things got so bad that emergency orders from the STB were needed, as has been the case recently,” the TTD says.
The unions also say that the common carrier obligation, which requires railroads to provide service upon reasonable request, needs to be more clearly defined. Congress is considering a bill that would put teeth behind the common carrier obligation and make it easier for the STB to enforce the rule.
“Unfortunately, because the common carrier obligation is not clearly defined and the term ‘reasonable’ is in the eye of the beholder, the Surface Transportation Board, shippers are reluctant to bring common carrier cases and it is difficult for the agency to enforce the railroads’ common carrier obligation,” the TTD says. “We have endorsed legislation in Congress that would more specifically define the common carrier obligation by explicitly considering factors such as staffing levels and availability of equipment and better enabling the STB to enforce this obligation, including by requiring railroads to increase employment levels or bring more equipment into the system. We urge Congress to swiftly pass this legislation before further irreparable harm is done by the railroads to our freight rail system and this country.”
The TTD also was critical of Precision Scheduled Railroading and reductions to capital spending.