STB to AAR on Reciprocal Switching: 15 More Days to Comment

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
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The Surface Transportation Board (STB) has partially granted the Association of American Railroads’ (AAR) request to extend the comment period for the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking issued Sept. 7, 2023 in Docket No. EP 711 (Sub-No. 2), Reciprocal Switching for Inadequate Service. Meanwhile, Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) are encouraging STB Chairman Martin Oberman to “continue engaging with shippers as stakeholder comments are reviewed and the Board considers next actions.”

While the AAR late last month called for a 90-day extension, which would allow comments until Feb. 20, 2024, the STB has decided on a 15-day extension, moving the comment period deadline from Oct. 23, 2023, to Nov. 7, 2023.

Docket No. EP 711 (Sub-No. 2) proposed a new set of regulations, providing “for the prescription of reciprocal switching agreements to address inadequate rail service, as determined using objective standards based on a carrier’s original estimated time of arrival, transit time, and first-mile and last-mile service,” the STB explained in its Sept. 29 comment-period decision. To help implement the new regulations, the STB said it is seeking “(1) to require Class I carriers to submit certain data, which would be publicly accessible and generalized; and (2) to adopt a new requirement that, upon written request by a customer, a rail carrier must provide to that customer individualized, machine-readable service data.”

AAR on Sept. 25 filed a motion seeking an extension for submitting comments, asserting that the proposed regulations “are detailed and complex, requiring extensive effort to review and comment appropriately,” the STB reported. “It further asserts that the current schedule will not allow interested parties sufficient time to analyze the issues under consideration in this proceeding or the impact of the proposed rule on the rail network and to prepare meaningful comments that will inform the Board.”

The Private Railcar Food and Beverage Association (PRFBA) and the Freight Rail Customer Alliance (FRCA) opposed AAR’s request. In separate STB filings, PRFBA pointed out that “the current comment period provides ample time for stakeholders to analyze the proposal while also considering the urgent need for relief due to the ongoing rail service crisis” and FRCA noted that “prompt action is needed so that rail customers have more readily available remedies to inadequate service.”

The STB’s rulemaking proposal stemmed from what it called “critical and ongoing service problems” in the freight rail industry. That’s why the agency said it “must consider both the need for stakeholders and other interested persons—on all sides of these issues—to develop a record sufficient for sound, informed decision-making and the public interest in the Board’s prompt, timely consideration of these critical issues.”

While the STB reported that “AAR has not shown good cause for nearly tripling the current period for initial comments, which would substantially and unduly delay the Board’s consideration of comments in this important proceeding,” it “appreciates that it solicited comments on many issues and proposed a detailed set of regulations.” A 15-day extension “would reasonably accommodate potential commenters while also ensuring timely consideration of the issues,” STB said in its decision.

In an Oct. 2 letter to Chairman Oberman (download below), Sens. Baldwin and Moore Capito expressed their “strong support” for the STB’s rulemaking, which they said was “long overdue.”

“We have been concerned about the prolonged service challenges facing many rail shippers in recent years and have appreciated the efforts taken by the Board to date to require service improvement plans and increased data reporting,” they wrote. “However, ensuring that the freight rail system works for all stakeholders will require more than just additional reporting. This proposed rulemaking is an appropriate next step that will improve rail service, and we encourage you to move ahead with the final rule. We also believe more may be needed and ask that you continue engaging with shippers as stakeholder comments are reviewed and the Board considers next actions.”

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