Every year, federal regulators ask the nation’s freight railroads how they plan to deal with peak seasonal traffic.
This year’s request comes with more urgency.
At a time when many electric cooperatives have been plagued by delayed or missing coal shipments, the Surface Transportation Board wants railroads to explain how they plan to avoid a catastrophe this fall and winter.
STB Chairman Daniel R. Elliott III asked the seven Class I railroads to respond by Sept. 15 on how they will work with customers to prevent or cushion critical commodity shortfalls during periods of rail congestion.
“Rail service issues continue to have an adverse impact on many rail customers,” Elliott wrote in an Aug. 19 letter to the railroads.
The last year has been “challenging” because of issues involving weather, volume, capacity and equipment, Elliott said. The polar vortex strained rail shipments last winter when many utilities needed additional coal to meet winter heating needs.
“Stakeholders have raised recent concerns with the board about supply chain fluidity for coal, automobiles, ethanol, and propane among other commodities,” Elliott wrote.
Among a list of items to be filed with the STB are:
• Expectations for seasonal traffic peaks;
• Predicted changes from historic volume level or train speeds for commodities such as coal; and
• A description of any regions, with a special emphasis on Chicago, that could become chokepoints in meeting customer service expectations.
Elliott’s letter came less than two weeks after the North Dakota Public Service Commission urged the STB to act to reduce a backlog of grain cars that might not make it to market before harvest time.
That’s evidence, the commission said, of a major problem in freight rail traffic.
“The railroads’ response has been entirely inadequate to address the needs of our producers,” said Commissioner Julie Fedorchak. “This demands swift action by the STB.”
The board will hear from rail customers at a Sept. 4 hearing in Bismarck, N.D.