WASHINGTON – The U.S. Surface Transportation Board says it will hold a hearing Dec. 9 to review certain exemptions from economic regulation afforded railroads – specifically, commodity exemptions, boxcar exemptions and intermodal trailer and container exemptions.

The exemptions from STB rate and service oversight were first imposed in 1976, and modified in 1980 following substantial deregulation of the rail industry by the Staggers Rail Act.

Creating those exemptions, said the STB, “fundamentally changed the economic regulation of the railroad industry. Prior to 1976, [the STB’s predecessor, the Interstate Commerce Commission] heavily regulated the industry. The ICC focused its regulation on ensuring equal treatment of shippers, which in some instances, led to railroad pricing decisions based on factors other than market considerations.

“These agency exemption decisions were instrumental in the U.S. rail system’s transition from a heavily regulated, financially weak component of the economy into a mature, relatively healthy industry that operates with only minimal oversight,” said the STB in announcing the hearing.

“The transition, however, was not without challenges, sometimes because an exemption … excuses carriers from virtually all aspects of regulation, even though the STB’s continuing jurisdiction over exempted movements also extinguishes any common law cause of action regarding common carrier duties,” said the STB.

“In recent years, the STB has received informal inquiries questioning the relevance and/or necessity of some of the existing commodity exemptions, given the changes in the competitive landscape and the railroad industry that have occurred over the past few decades,” said the STB.

“The STB will, therefore, hold a hearing to explore the continuing utility of and the issues surrounding the categorical exemptions.”

The Journal of Commerce reported Oct. 21 that the decision to hold the hearing followed a September promise to the Senate Commerce Committee by STB Chairman Dan Elliott that the STB would begin an examination of past regulatory practices.

Rail freight loadings continue to show improvement, reports the AAR in releasing carloading data for the week ending Oct. 16.

Total U.S. carloadings increased by more than 10 percent over the same week in 2009.

Intermodal loadings were up by more than 15 percent over the comparable week in 2009.

Fourteen of the 19 carload commodity groups increased from the comparable week in 2009.

For the first 41 weeks of 2010, U.S. railroads carloadings are up more than 7 percent over the first 41 weeks in 2009; and intermodal loadings are up almost 15 percent.

By UTU International President Mike Futhey

The recent tragic, senseless and violent murder in New Orleans of CSX conductor Fred Gibbs, and wounding of the train’s engineer (a potential witness whose name is being withheld), accelerates an already urgent need for better workplace safety and security measures for rail, transit and motor coach facilities and operations.

Gibbs and the engineer were shot by a lone gunman (a suspect is in police custody) inside the cab of their intermodal train parked on a dark and isolated stretch of track as it awaited dispatcher clearance to enter a yard in New Orleans. The motive appears to have been robbery of the crew, but the train could have contained a cargo of chlorine gas or other deadly hazmat, and the shooter could have been a terrorist or delusional individual with knowledge of locomotive operations.

Indeed, prior to 9/11, few, if any, envisioned terrorists capable of hijacking and piloting multiple sophisticated passenger aircraft and flying them into high-profile targets; or of terrorists in Madrid, Spain, who coordinated four separate rush-hour bombings aboard packed commuter trains in March 2004.

Many of our members noted immediately after the New Orleans shooting that federal regulations do not require bullet-proof glass in locomotives, tamper-proof and functioning locomotive door locks, “keyed” or electronic safeguards that limit locomotive operation to licensed train and engine workers, or train scheduling and dispatching that restricts the stopping of trains to well-lighted and protected areas.

Certainly these are logical responses to the New Orleans shooting.

But without more expert study and collaboration among experts at the Federal Railroad Administration, Federal Transit Administration, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Transportation Security Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, law enforcement agencies, carriers and labor organizations representing rail, transit and bus employees, we could be overlooking other effective safeguards.

Transportation labor long has been ahead of the curve in calling for greater collaboration among stakeholders, which includes front-line employee training to recognize threats and learn how best to report concerns to dispatchers and law enforcement.

In fact, Amtrak and the UTU recently agreed to a joint project that, in cooperation with the Transportation Security Administration, directs almost $300,000 in federal funding to the UTU to devise and implement a training program for conductors, assistant conductors, engineers, on-board service personnel and yard employees to enhance their abilities to recognize behavioral traits of individuals intending to engage in terrorist-like activity.

The UTU is now reaching out to build on this program to effectuate workplace safety as it pertains to terrorist and delusional activities.

We are seeking collaboration among other concerned labor organizations, federal safety and homeland security agencies, and carriers to create an incubator for effective ideas on a comprehensive security action plan, including employee training, that can be presented to Congress for fast-track federal funding.

We are heartened by word from CSX that it has begun a cooperative security venture with other carriers and law enforcement agencies to increase security around interchanges and loops in New Orleans.

The potential threat, however, is nationwide; and as train and engine employees, and bus drivers, are constantly in the cross-hairs of danger as well as being the eyes and ears best and first able to recognize threats, it is essential that transportation labor organizations be an integral part of any effort to improve rail, transit and bus security.

Historically, transportation labor and the carriers have been most successful in achieving policy goals when they act in concert. Where carriers or labor act separately — and often at odds with each other — success often is elusive or falls short of goals.

For any action plan to be effective, all parties with accountability and responsibility must collaborate in the creation and implementation of that plan.

We will be reporting more on this effort in the near future.