Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) on Tuesday introduced a bill aimed at reducing rail disruptions that have damaged the U.S. economy.
The Reliable Rail Service Act would clarify common carrier rules — which require railroads to provide service upon reasonable request — that shippers say are poorly defined and rarely enforced.
Industries that rely on freight rail to transport food, fuel and other goods say railroads are failing to live up to those obligations, instead restricting the amount of cargo they carry and hiking fees.
Railroads, which transport nearly one-third of all U.S. cargo, laid off around 30 percent of their workforce over the last six years, leaving them unprepared for an influx in demand for goods during the pandemic.
Since May, railroads failed to fulfill about 13 percent of all pickups and deliveries, and 30 percent of railcars didn’t reach their destination within 24 hours of the estimated time of arrival, according to Surface Transportation Board data.
Shippers say that chronic rail service disruptions have reduced the supply of goods available to consumers, driving up prices at the pump and the grocery store.
“In order to build a strong Made in America economy and also lower costs for consumers, we need to ensure our agriculture, energy, and manufacturing businesses have reliable rail service,” Baldwin said in a statement.
The bill is backed by a host of business groups and labor unions, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, Consumer Brands Association and the AFL-CIO.
“When farmers are harvesting they need to be sure that common carriers are held accountable in their crucial role in the transportation system and ensuring timely delivery,” Joe Smentek, executive director of the Wisconsin Soybean Association, said in a statement.
Railroads have pushed back on congressional efforts to intervene in the rail system, noting that the Surface Transportation Board is already taking action to better define common carrier rules and enact other changes to minimize service disruptions.
Lawmakers have been paying more attention to freight rail after a contract dispute between rail workers and their employers nearly led to a nationwide strike that would have ravaged the U.S. economy.
The Biden administration helped broker a last-minute deal to avert a rail shutdown, but that deal could still unravel if workers don’t feel it’s strong enough, setting the stage for another potential crisis.