Are rail service failures a threat to democracy?

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COMMENT/ANALYSIS

If you thought freight rail service was bad, we recently learned that it could pose a real threat to the upcoming election this fall due to the railroads’ inability to deliver the kind of paper needed to the ballots.

The revelation came near the end of a two-hour House of Representatives committee hearing in late May, where members of the Surface Transportation Board (STB) found themselves pressured to act faster and stronger to bring the paths to fix lingering issues that have contributed to the nation’s struggle with supply chain issues and rising inflation.

During the hearing, Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL), who is a leader in the House’s bipartisan efforts to ensure fair and efficient elections across the country, revealed that the type of special paper needed for machines for counting ballots are in short supply. because of the rail crisis. This is particularly important as more voters now rely on paper ballots, as distrust of computerized voting machines has grown – 92% of electoral jurisdictions will use paper ballots this year, up from 72% in the 2018 midterm elections.

“Printing is an essential industry, and nothing highlights its essential nature more than the fact that without printing, confidence in our democratic process and our elections is threatened,” said Ford Bowers, CEO of Printing United Alliance. , when he raised the matter. with Davis and other members of the House Administration Committee during an election roundtable in mid-March.

The paper shortage also extends to the type of paper needed for items such as voter registration forms, envelopes, voter guides as well as the ubiquitous “I voted” stickers distributed to voters in polling stations.

One of the stumbling blocks to the STB’s efforts to address this issue is the fact that currently paper and forest products are exempt from STB regulation. Although the Office has initiated proceedings to lift this exemption and other commodity-related exemptions, the proceedings have not been completed. However, Martin Oberman, chairman of the STB, told Davis the board is prepared to deal with the issue quickly when approached directly by affected shippers.

“We have the ability to waive exemptions for the purposes of a specific case, and we did so in an ongoing case involving a different product,” Oberman said, noting that he had heard of product industries before. forestry and paper about the lack of rail service in general.

“If there are any concerns, these shippers can come to us now for relief and in an effort to lift the exemption. We will listen and they won’t have to wait for the general rule if they have a valid complaint. lack of service.

This prompted STB member Karen J. Hedlund to chime in: “We worry about global starvation; now you tell us that we should be concerned about saving our democracy.

It is also true that shortages of food and other essential supplies have been attributed to the crisis in rail services. This includes the chemicals needed to produce fuel for vehicles and clean water, as well as shipments of fertilizer and grain that have filled grain silos and are piled on the ground, as well as equipment and the supplies needed to keep assembly lines from shutting down, something that has happened in a number of cases already. Some rail critics said the crisis was reaching a point where it could endanger national security.

According to committee member Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), you can add to all of this the potential inhumane treatment of animals due to the rail crisis. During the hearing, he revealed that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) had sent him a letter claiming that herds of dairy cattle and other animals were in real danger of starvation due to the failures. delivery of animal feed shipments by rail and soaring prices. the crisis has created.

The House and Senate Respond

Last April, the STB held two days of hearings in which shippers from a wide range of industries described in detail how the rail service crisis had worsened, and they predicted that it would get worse unless the government intervened.

At the late May hearing held by the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, Oberman announced that the board’s decision to require reciprocal commutation — which would allow shippers to request that a railway authorize another railway to run equipment on its tracks – should be published by the end of the year.

He also said the STB had ordered Class 1 railroads to provide detailed reports on their operations and what they were doing to deal with the crisis. To deal with the crisis, it is also preparing to issue direct service orders where they are most needed. In fact, the council has created a new office to deal with complaints about rail services, he said.

“We are at a point of crisis and we need to address this crisis in a meaningful way. This contributes to inflation,” said Representative Peter From Fazio (D-OR) during the subcommittee hearing, which was convened to address legislation reauthorizing the STB, the successor to the former Interstate Commerce Commission. In addition to serving on the subcommittee, DeFazio also serves as chair of its parent body, the powerful House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

He told Oberman and the other four board members present that when it comes to the rail crisis, “you are the people who can stop it. We need to act faster and you need to act more decisively because we need to protect the rail freight system in this country. Your testimony suggests that you have all the powers you need. If so, use them. We need to restore competition.

DeFazio also said he had been in communication with senior White House officials the day before. He observed that the Biden administration is “well aware of this and is extremely concerned” about the rail crisis and is considering what steps it can take by executive order “to deal with this mess that has been created by Wall’s leeches.” Street. Buyback dividends cannot be the measure of the success of rail freight in this country,” as DeFazio put it.

The president was referring to the Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) operating model that has been adopted by all but one North American Class 1 railroad over the past five years under pressure from hedge fund managers and other investors who see it as a way to grow. earnings and increase stock value by engaging in company-wide extreme cost reduction programs.

DeFazio didn’t mince words when referring to E. Hunter Harrison, the late head of CSX Transportation who is credited with inventing the PSR that spread to other Class 1 railroads in the over the past five years.

“The evil ghost of Hunter Harrison lives on,” DeFazio said. “This man’s legacy is disgusting. He got railroad CEOs addicted to watching tickers on Wall Street and using their resources for the benefit of their shareholders and not running the railroads like the railroads .

A major problem at the root of the deterioration of rail service is that this extreme reduction in costs has extended to a significant reduction in employee payrolls. More than 45,000 operating, maintenance and other personnel needed to run a railroad lost their jobs, and those who remained left in droves due to the excessive pressure they suffer to do their job when they lack adequate staff.

Railway management has tried to blame the service crisis on not being able to recruit and train enough staff to replace the additional 20% of their workforce who were laid off between March and June 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Oberman and other critics pointed out that after that, railroad management failed to replenish employee ranks even after rail traffic returned to 97% of pre-COVID levels at the end of 2020.

The staffing issue existed long before COVID hit because of PSR, Oberman explained. “When it comes to rail jobs, it’s become clear to me that they don’t have a cushion. You wouldn’t send a football team onto the field without a backup quarterback. What the railroads have done is exactly that. They didn’t have a backup, so when there was COVID, when there was a labor disruption, the trains stopped running.

Around the same time as the House hearing, Oberman received a letter from a group of 21 Democratic and Republican senators who also urged him to take additional action to protect rail shippers. Senators Kevin Cramer (R-ND) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) are credited with organizing the letter-writing effort.

“We are very concerned about the significant disruptions to rail service occurring across the entire U.S. freight rail network,” the May 23 letter said. “Reports from rail customers, including our manufacturers, farmers, ranchers and energy producers, indicate that reliable rail service is likewise, shippers have little recourse or alternative options to get their goods to the market.

The senators added, “Given the impact of these rail service disruptions, the STB’s oversight role is more critical than ever. As the railroads work to address existing challenges through plans to service restoration, we urge the STB to consider all constructive options to ensure reliable and consistent rail service is available to shippers throughout the U.S. rail network.”

The National Grain and Feed Association, National Mining Association, American Chemistry Council and Growth Energy are cited in the letter as agreeing with the senators’ position.

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