Senators address rail safety, congestion in letters

By Erin Voegele | May 20, 2014

Several U.S. senators are continuing their efforts to push for safer, more efficient rail transportation. On May 15, two senators issued a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation asking for increased safety resources on short line railroads. A separate group of senators on May 12 issued a letter to the Surface Transportation Board asking for action to address poor rail service in the Midwest.

In their letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, chair and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for Transportation, respectively, advocated for increased safety measures to be put in place for short line railroads. According to the letter, short line railroads make up one-third of the nation’s rail network, but lack the funding and support that larger Class I railroads receive. Within the letter, Murray and Collins express support for the creation of a Short Line Railroad Safety Institute, which would be designed to enhance safety in the short line freight railroad industry, including the transportation of crude oil and ethanol.

“Short line railroads operate more than 50,000 miles of track, which is approximately one-third of the national railroad network.  These short lines play an important role as a feeder system for the larger Class I railroads, helping connect local communities to the national railroad system.  Unfortunately, many of these short line railroads lack the resources that larger railroads are able to dedicate to safety training,” wrote Murray and Collins in the letter.

“We ask that you examine the availability of existing resources within FRA to address emergency response training for short line railroads this fiscal year. We look forward to working with you to help make the proposed Short Line Railroad Safety Institute a reality.  Thank you for your attention to this matter,” they continued.

Sens. Al Franken, D-Minn.; Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.; Tim Johnson, D-S.D.; and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., sent a separate letter to STB Chairman Daniel Elliott III, asking for the STB to swiftly address the poor rail service that has plagued farmers, businesses and communities throughout the Midwest.

“We write to urge you to remain involved in the process of improving rail service for customers in the Upper Midwest who, since November 2013, have been suffering from poor service. If rail service does not improve in the near future through steps taken by BNSF and Canadian Pacific railways, we request that you use whatever authority necessary to ensure such improvement, especially for agricultural customers struggling to move last year's crop to market and access needed inputs for planting,” wrote the senators in the letter.

The letter addressed a recent order issued by the STB requiring BNSF and Canadian Pacific railways to report their plans meet the short-term need for fertilizer shipments. “The use of fertilizer, unlike many other products, is time contingent. If a farmer misses an application window for fertilizer for a given crop, there is no amount of backfill that can make up for the missed application. This is because specific nutrients are needed at specific times in the growing cycle. We encourage the STB to remain directly involved in fertilizer shipment improvements in order for inventories to recover and so that fertilizer prices may fall to their more normal ranges,” the senators wrote.

The letter also points out that some farmers still haven’t been able to ship last year’s crop, and are struggling to pay for this year’s planting as a result. “Even worse, some farmers are struggling to pay off last year's operating loans as a result of difficulties in accessing rail service to move their crops to market,” said the senators in the letter.