U.S. Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack is calling on the Surface Transportation Board to take several actions that he suggests would improve freight-rail service to agricultural shippers and strengthen the nation’s rail system overall.
In a May 11 letter to STB Chairman Martin Oberman, Vilsack commended the board for quickly addressing rail service problems a year ago. Although service has improved “from its worst levels” since he wrote to the board in March 2022, service “remains inadequate and unreliable for many agricultural shippers,” Vilsack said in his latest letter.
The secretary attributed delays and unpredictable rail service partly to the railroads’ use of precision-scheduled railroading (PSR) and its “drastic reductions in workforce and assets to reduce operating ratios at the expense of service.”
The PSR operating model leaves an insufficient buffer in labor and assets for railroads to be able to handle spikes in demand, he wrote.
“It is of utmost importance that the STB moves quickly to strengthen our rail system overall and specifically to improve service to agricultural shippers before railroad capacity again becomes an urgent, national issue,” the letter stated. “This work must also ensure the safety of rail workers and communities.”
Vilsack asked the STB to do the following:
• Move forward on the open proceedings on private rail-car use and emergency service orders;
• Move forward on allowing reciprocal switching;
• Clarify the railroads’ common carrier obligation; and
• Collect additional first-mile/last-mile service data.
“[T]he railroads should not be able to continue to operate without buffer for unexpected demand, make historic profits and engage in enormous stock buybacks, all while providing subpar service to agricultural shippers and disregarding safety,” Vilsack wrote.