Skip to main content

‘Current State of Freight Rail Is Not Great’: STB Chair

Surface Transportation Board (STB) chair Marty Oberman didn’t sound optimistic Friday about the state of rail, but vowed the STB is doing what it can to right mounting railroad congestion issues.

“We’re using every tool that we have available at the board to oversee this and to hold the railroads accountable,” Oberman said Friday during a rail-focused roundtable organized by the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO union that also included several port and rail labor leaders.

The STB is the federal agency that regulates mostly freight rail, but ultimately has reach across all modes of surface transportation.

“Despite the hard work of our nation’s dedicated rail and port workers, there is a looming cargo logjam just as retailers are gearing up for a busy holiday season,” Transportation Trades Department president Greg Regan said during the roundtable.

Regan cited an estimate from the Port of Los Angeles that it will likely take between four and six weeks for the port’s rail-related cargo backlog to be cleared from terminals.

The Port of Los Angeles reported 33,601 containers waiting to be loaded onto a train on Friday, up 1 percent from the previous day.

“I’m sad to say that the current state of freight rail is not great. To put this in [a] short-term perspective, freight rail service has been less than robust over the last couple of years and really has deteriorated to the point of causing urgent problems for a number of rail customers,” Oberman said.

Related Stories

The chair pointed to an April STB hearing, which he called an “enlightening” experience.

“I think the board members and the public learned a great deal more about, in detail, just what the effects of the railroads’ business practices over the last six, seven years have brought to freight rail into our economy,” Oberman said.

What came out of the STB hearing were several orders for the railroads aimed at addressing service and the labor shortage issue.

However, Oberman called the railroads’ first attempt at providing service recovery plans to the STB “insufficient.”

Oberman went on to say a separate order for more detailed reporting on workforce levels, training and employee retention targets over a six-month period also went out to the major railroads with the aim of keeping tabs on the issue.

“The railroads’ past statements to the board over the past couple of years were, ‘Well, don’t worry about us. We’ll be fine.’ And, clearly they aren’t fine,” Oberman said.

Now, mid-way through that six-month period, what has been reported to the board by the major railroads has not been encouraging, according to the STB chair.

“We’re about halfway through that six-month period, so I’m not optimistic about the pace at which rail service can recover,” Oberman said. “It is affecting every aspect of the economy, from the problems at the ports, to all of our internal needs for great service.”

Much of the rest of the roundtable conversation focused on union leaders weighing in on the current state of rail and how the industry got there, with all agreeing the issues began well before the pandemic. That included talk about the railroads’ reduction in labor and the controversial precision scheduled railroading (PSR) service that critics, such as the unions, have said create safety issues and also impact service for shippers—two things PSR is aimed at addressing.

Vince Verna, vice president and national legislative representative for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLET), said things started going south from 2015 when PSR was introduced amid a rail workforce that had seen thousands of jobs cut.

“It’s not precise and it’s not scheduled. And, we don’t think it’s railroading either,” Verna said of PSR.

The long-time locomotive engineer said PSR has created a “chaotic and ineffective way of doing business.”

“When I hired on the railroad, way back in 1994… the next [focus] after safety was customer service. It was drummed into our heads to be very proud of that and getting cars to customers was really the number one thing and to do it safely,” he said.

Jared Cassity, alternate national legislative director of the SMART Transportation Division union, compared PSR to a “monster” and said what’s resulted has been longer trains spanning multiple miles, including a five-mile train he saw last week.

“What that’s doing is creating a logjam,” he said, adding long trains essentially block equipment from being used.

The roundtable discussion came as the contract for some 115,000 rail workers remains up in the air. Unions were readying for a possible strike after mediation failed to yield an agreement. The strike was averted after President Biden formed a Presidential Emergency Board that recently wrapped hearings and is now tasked with recommending a settlement.