As this edition was going to press, the Surface Transportation Board (STB) directed the four Class I U.S. rail carriers, BNSF Railway Co. (BNSF), CSX Transportation, Inc. (CSX), Norfolk Southern Railway (NS), and Union Pacific Railroad (UP), to correct deficiencies in rail service recovery plans. The plans were filed in response to an STB order issued on May 6.

The STB ordered the four Class I carriers to develop service recovery plans as a result of the “severe service deficits presently permeating their rail networks.” The STB is also ordering these carriers to provide additional information on their actions to improve service and communications with mine operators as well as additional detailed information to demonstrate their monthly progress in increasing the size of their work forces to levels needed to provide reliable rail service.

The service recovery plans, together with the additional requested information, are crucial components of the STB’s active monitoring of the U.S. freight rail industry and particularly its focused efforts to ensure that the large carriers overcome the significant service challenges affecting many rail users and the public.

On April 26 and April 27, 2022, the STB held a two-day public hearing on the “significant performance deterioration of the freight rail industry.” At the hearing, the STB heard compelling testimony about the severity and dire impacts of substandard rail performance. It also heard testimony from BNSF, CSX, NS, and UP about the causes, extent, and likely duration of service disruptions, and their remedial initiatives.

The service recovery plans were supposed to specifically describe key remedial initiatives and promote a clearer vantage point into operating conditions on the rail network. Unfortunately, these four carriers submitted plans that were perfunctory and lacked the level of detail that was mandated, according to the STB. Of particular concern was the fact that UP and NS refused to provide the six-month targets for achieving their performance goals explicitly required by the STB’s order.

The mining industry and the railroads have a co-dependent relationship that has been contentious at times. The swings in demand created by commodity price cycles cause logistical problems. Mine operators hesitate to complain about rail service for fear of retribution and that’s why the STB plays the important role it does.