Congress should consider implementing an annual “stress test” for the railroads to ensure that railroads have adequately invested in their infrastructure and people, according to policy position papers approved by the Transportation Trades Department (TTD) at a biannual meeting this week.
These position papers serve as policy action guidelines for the coalition for the upcoming months, according to TTD, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO. These viewpoints have the support of the group’s 37 member unions, including member railroad unions.
To ensure that the railroads have the infrastructure and staffing they need to ensure sufficient network capacity, Congress should see whether to improve the definition for the common carrier obligation, TTD said.
The common carrier obligation binds the railroads to carry freight, but some in the industry contend that the common carrier obligation as it currently stands is too vague and doesn’t adequately define service standards.
The Surface Transportation Board could be the federal body that would work on the definition, according to TTD. Indeed, recent congressional legislation has sought to address this issue, although the change of power in the U.S. House of Representatives from Democrat to Republican could potentially affect whether that legislation gains much traction.
“At this moment, the railroads are not living up to their common carrier obligation. The current service provided by the railroads is falling well short of what their customers and this country needs and cannot be considered ‘reasonable’ by any sensible definition of the term,” TTD said. “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.”
Any definition of the common carrier obligation should consider factors such as the railroads’ staffing levels and the availability of equipment, as well as better enabling the STB to enforce this obligation through requiring railroads to increase employment levels or bring more equipment into the system, TTD said.
While STB currently conducts an annual railroad revenue adequacy test to ensure that the railroads are earning sufficient revenue, “we believe consideration is warranted for the STB to create a parallel test that would look at whether the railroads have enough workers and physical infrastructure to meet their common carrier obligation for rail service,” TTD continued. “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.”
TTD also suggested two other areas of policy reform: “permanently restoring railroad worker sickness and unemployment benefits that have been sequestered by the federal government for the last decade” and “requiring the Federal Railroad Administration to close a loophole that allows rail workers to be displaced by federal grants.”
The coalition says the railroad unemployment and sickness insurance program has been subject to budget sequestration by Congress, and TTD is asking for Congress to exempt the program from budget sequestration.
TTD also contends that there is a loophole in FRA-administered passenger rail grants programs where funded projects have the potential to affect the workers of those projects. TTD is asking for those workers to receive the same protections as freight rail and public transit workers should there be potential for job or wage displacement.
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