Buttigieg to Provide Testimony at STB Hearing Notice on Urgent Issues in Freight Rail Service

Buttigieg to Provide Testimony at STB Hearing Notice on Urgent Issues in Freight Rail Service
Secretary of the Department of Transportation Pete Buttigieg delivers remarks on new transportation initiatives at an event in the South Court Auditorium at Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington on March 7, 2022. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Isabel van Brugen

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is expected to provide testimony this week at a hearing set by the Surface Transportation Board (STB) on urgent issues in freight rail service.

The STB said hearings will be held on Tuesday and Wednesday on recent rail service problems and recovery efforts involving several Class I carriers.

Freight rail companies have been accused by labor interests of using new scheduling rules and attempting to operate trains with as small a workforce as possible, Politico reported.

Freight rail executives, rail customers, and labor organizations are expected to discuss recent service issues during the two-day hearing, according to the federal agency.

“Rail network reliability is essential to the Nation’s economy and is a foremost priority of the Board. In recent weeks, the Board has heard informally from a broad range of stakeholders about inconsistent and unreliable rail service,” STB said.

The board said it has also received reports from the Secretary of Agriculture and other stakeholders about the “serious impact of these service trends on rail users, particularly with respect to shippers of agricultural and energy products.”

“Given the serious nature of the service issues reported to the Board, in addition to providing as much visibility as possible to all aspects of the current service issues, the Board expects the information provided at the hearing to inform any potential future Board actions to ameliorate the problems that have been reported,” it said.

In announcing the hearing, Board Chairman Martin Oberman said he has, during his time on the board, “raised concerns about the primacy Class I railroads have placed on lowering their operating ratios and satisfying their shareholders even at the cost of their customers.”

Part of that strategy, Oberman said, has involved cutting their workforce “to the bare bones” in order to reduce costs.

“Over the last 6 years, the Class Is collectively have reduced their workforce by 29 percent —that is about 45,000 employees cut from the payrolls,” Oberman said.

“In my view, all of this has directly contributed to where we are today—rail users experiencing serious deteriorations in rail service because, on too many parts of their networks, the railroads simply do not have a sufficient number of employees,” he continued.

Oberman said the board expects the railroads to explain the actions they will take to fix these issues.

"The Board will also consider stakeholder views on how it can use its authority—including measures to address emergencies, increase transparency, and promote reliable service—to ameliorate problems on the network,” he added.

The hearings will be held at STB’s offices in Washington, D.C., and will be live-streamed on the agency’s YouTube channel.

The first day of the hearing will hear testimony from representatives of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Federal Maritime Commission, and several shipper organizations. Buttigieg will be the first speaker and will be followed by Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Dr. Jewel H. Bronaugh, and Commissioner Carl W. Bentzel of the Federal Maritime Commission.

On April 27, representatives of the National Industrial Transportation League, American Forest and Paper Association, Packaging Corporation of America, and the National Association of Chemical Distributors will be among those discussing recent service issues.