Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Short Line & Regional Perspective: Competition hearings: What is STB

Written by 

By Mike Ogborn

mjogborn.jpgThe Surface Transportation Board is about to embark on a series of hearings that could result in major changes in the railroad industry, including the way railroads compete, price their service, and make capital investment decisions.

The first hearing will be held in February and will review the long-standing exemptions for boxcars, commodities, and TOFC/COFC rate and commodity exemptions. The second hearing will be held in May and will “explore the current state of competitiveness in the railroad industry and possible policy alternatives to facilitate more competition,” including competitive access, bottleneck rates, terminal access, and reciprocal switching.

This announcement comes on the heels of an unsuccessful attempt by the Senate Commerce Committee to draft compromise legislation on these subjects in the 2010 Congress. While we do not know what the end product of these hearings will be, we do know that they will be wide-ranging and deal with issues that go to the heart of the railroad industry’s ability to compete for business and to adequately invest in its infrastructure.

The short line railroad industry will be full participants in these hearings. We have put together an internal process for developing and presenting our position on each issue so as to do everything we can to protect the interests of all short line railroads.

Most important, we will make a substantial effort explaining to the STB how short line ratemaking and service practices work, and how those things are weaved into the fabric of our relationship with the Class I’s.

These are very complex subjects, but a number of simple principles will guide our response to these hearings.

If we are not the problem, do not make us part of the solution. Short line railroad pricing and service practices are not the reason this debate is taking place. Applying blanket solutions to short line railroads will have virtually no impact on the outcome, but will have significant impact on the financial viability of our small businesses.

Short line railroads contribute to competition. The vast majority of short lines were created to preserve or enhance rail service where it otherwise was going to be abandoned or severely restricted. More than 300 of the nation’s 545 short lines connect to two or more Class I carriers, and this provides a significant competitive advantage to short line-served shippers. Enacting regulations that reduce our revenues will severely restrict our ability to maintain and rehabilitate these competitive alternatives.

Short line railroad transactions were predicated on established economics. Short line buyers purchased a given amount of traffic and a presumed rate. The goal is always to earn enough to improve and grow that service, and virtually all of today’s short lines have done so. Many of the ideas being discussed in the debate could destroy the economics of our transactions.

For instance, mandated terminal access would allow another carrier to service our best customers for a trackage rights fee. A typical trackage rights fee is no more than the direct cost associated with maintaining a particular segment of track. That is not what the short line owner paid for in the first instance, and allowing that to occur will turn these transactions upside down to the detriment of all the remaining shippers on the line.

A reduction in Class I investment and service will hit short lines hard. To the extent regulatory changes result in reduced Class I investment and service, those reductions will occur first on those line segments with the least traffic—where most short lines operate. This will reduce our traffic and our revenues, and we will in turn be forced to reduce investment and curtail service.

It is no secret that the impetus for these hearings is the unsuccessful effort of Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) to craft a compromise piece of legislation during the 2010 Congress. While the short line railroad industry had serious concerns with portions of that legislation, it needs to be noted that Sen. Rockefeller was attentive to those concerns.

Sen. Rockefeller and the Commerce Committee devoted substantial time listening to and understanding short line positions. In many instances portions, of the proposed legislation were altered to address those concerns. In every instance, they did their very best to understand the intricate financial and operating relationships between the big and small railroads.

We sincerely appreciate that effort and we hope the STB will give us that same consideration.

Mike Ogborn is Managing Director of OmniTRAX, Inc., a transportation management company that provides management services to 17 short line railroads and other transportation companies in Canada and the United States.

William Vantuono

With Railway Age since 1992, Bill Vantuono has broadened and deepened the magazine's coverage of the technological revolution that is so swiftly changing the industry. He has also strengthened Railway Age's leadership position in industry affairs with the conferences he conducts on operating passenger trains on freight railroads and communications-based train control.