By Randy Gordon, President and CEO
The federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) on May 15 published a decision waiving its general ban on ex parte communications with its commissioners to encourage informal discussions with stakeholders on the agency’s proposal to implement a so-called “final offer rate review” procedure in an effort to streamline and make its rail rate-challenge process more accessible to rail users, particularly smaller shippers.
In its decision, the agency also said it was seeking other ideas from stakeholders on ways to improve its rate-challenge process. Further, the STB said it wanted to explore modifications to improve its existing rail arbitration program – which has yet to be used – to provide “a practical alternative dispute-resolution mechanism to address smaller rate disputes.” In its decision, the STB noted that at least one Class I railroad – the Canadian National Railway – has indicated an interest in using the STB’s voluntary arbitration program to resolve small rate disputes, and had suggested certain modifications to the STB’s system (including keeping rate arbitration decisions confidential to the extent allowed by law).
The NGFA will be scheduling a “virtual” meeting with each of the three STB commissioners and their staffs to provide further input on these issues during the June 1-July 15 timeframe granted by the agency for such discussions. The NGFA has been an extremely active participant in both the STB’s rail rate reform and rail arbitration rulemakings, strongly urging the agency to create a workable, streamlined, inexpensive and expeditious process for rail customers to challenge unreasonable freight rates – NGFA submitted a comprehensive proposal for doing so in 2015 given the unworkability of the agency’s current process for agricultural shippers. NGFA also has urged improvements to the STB’s arbitration process by including several features of NGFA’s own Rail Arbitration System, which is available to NGFA-member companies and railroads.