Earlier this month, lawmakers averted a rail strike that could have brought our economy and country to a standstill. But they have yet to fix other major issues destabilizing the U.S. freight rail network — from major delays to service embargoes — which continue to feed inflation, disrupt manufacturing and hurt consumers.
Over the past year, we have become painfully aware of what can happen when the trains stop running on time and the nation’s supply chain breaks down. Chemical manufacturers are among the largest users of freight rail, shipping more than 33,000 carloads per week worth $2.8 billion.
The expansion of chemical manufacturing in the United States means our industry’s transportation needs are growing. With announced investments of more than $200 billion and over 350 chemical manufacturing projects, we expect to add 200,000 rail-car shipments per year by 2030. Unfortunately, chronic rail service failures are harming our industry’s ability to deliver chemical components that are critical to a growing and thriving economy.
A series of surveys of American Chemistry Council member companies over the last year found that freight rail service has steadily degraded, with most rail users reporting longer transit times, missed switches, reduced service days and higher rates. Poor rail service and missed deliveries have resulted in lost production for chemical manufacturers, which harms the vital industries they support — from farms to factories.
Many of these problems are the result of major consolidation and changes in the rail industry — most notably the adoption of something called precision scheduled railroading, or PSR. Shippers and policymakers were told that PSR would allow the railroads to operate more effectively and deliver benefits to everyone. Instead, it has led to years of railroads cutting essential resources — including laying off over 40,000 workers, closing rail yards and taking locomotives out of service. These cuts have gutted and weakened the rail network, making service disruptions more frequent, severe and long-lasting. Some railroads have even begun rationing service because they cannot handle customer needs.
We’re well past the point where we can count on railroad promises to fix the problems they created themselves. The country needs more effective freight rail policies that will help ensure the proper incentives are in place for railroads to provide reliable freight rail service. Long-overdue reforms include setting minimum service standards, tracking how well major railroads are performing for their customers, and promoting greater competition between railroads.
The sole agency with oversight of the railroads on commercial matters, the Surface Transportation Board (STB) is trying to pursue sensible solutions. The STB, however, is facing heavy resistance from the railroads. The railroads are quite adept at the Washington insider game — and continue to oppose meaningful reforms. The STB needs the backing of Congress to make a real difference and get to the heart of the problem.
Democrats and Republicans must work together to ensure the STB has the necessary authority and resources to do its job. As we have learned from recent events, the economy hangs in the balance unless lawmakers act to keep the railroads delivering for America.
• Chris Jahn is president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council.