Utilities, railroads spar over ‘data for data’s sake’ for fuel deliveries

Blake Sobczak, E&E reporter
Published: Friday, May 1, 2015

Last year, several coal-fired power plants in the Midwest came days away from shutting down as railroads failed to deliver enough fuel during the winter.
Now a federal rule to promote transparency in the wake of those disruptions is meeting pushback from the rail industry as service improves.

The Surface Transportation Board has ordered U.S. railroads to post average train speeds, rail car delays and other data for backed-up commodities, including coal and grains. The agency is proposing to make permanent weekly reporting requirements in place since October.

The Association of American Railroads and its member companies have fought the rule, putting the industry at odds with many of its customers, including members of the Western Coal Traffic League and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

“‘Transparency’ is a virtue for government action, but requiring private businesses to bear the cost of providing information should be justified by some legitimate government purpose,” the AAR said in comments filed with the STB this week. “Simply compiling data for data’s sake or for government agencies to ponder … does not justify placing burdens on rail carriers to compile and report operational data.”

Coal shippers, on the other hand, see room for railroads to share more than the existing requirements in the proposed rule, such as average cycle times for coal trains over each railroad’s 10 busiest corridors.

“There is no doubt that transparency into railroad performance metrics is needed and productive,” wrote the Western Coal Traffic League, NRECA and other leading utility trade groups in joint comments filed Wednesday. “Voluntary reporting also does not carry as much assurance of accuracy and reliability.”
The battle over reporting requirements traces back to the winter of 2013-14, when icy weather and an uptick in crude-by-rail traffic slowed trains across the United States. Grain and coal shippers in particular complained of being pushed off the tracks, and it has taken more than a year for railroads such as BNSF Railway Co. and Union Pacific Corp. to recover from the delays.

The AAR called last winter’s problems “unique,” suggesting reporting requirements “should be temporary and removed when service levels return to normal.” The group noted its members have pledged to spend $29 billion this year shoring up their networks.

Wheat, barley and soybean shippers have welcomed that investment but remain skeptical of the industry as a whole.

“One notable omission from [railroads’] comments is any claim that the service problems that became so severe in the winter of 2013-2014 are now over, as we approach the summer of 2015,” said a coalition of more than a dozen agricultural shippers led by the Alliance for Rail Competition.

“‘Trust us’ is not yet an acceptable response from Class I Railroads to periodic service meltdowns, either as a matter of law or as a matter of sound public policy,” they added.

The STB has defended its rule proposal as an effort “to provide for service performance transparency in the industry and allow the Board to more rapidly identify and respond to service performance issues” (EnergyWire, Jan. 5).

The agency is authorized to settle service disputes and can even redirect rail traffic, although board members typically only step in during major disruptions.