Debate over Midwest railcar shortage shifts to Washington with legislation, hearing, meetings

Government And Institutions Associated Press

Midwestern lawmakers and farmers are shifting the attention of a locomotive and railcar shortage problem to Washington this week with legislation, a committee hearing and meetings with decision-makers.

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The national Surface Transportation Board held a hearing last week in Fargo, North Dakota, because farmers and some politicians have said increased crude oil and freight shipments from the state's western oil fields are largely the cause of shipping delays across the region that have led to grain to pile up. Railroads have denied they favor one sector over another.

South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, said Monday that he and committee chairman Sen. John Rockefeller, a Democrat from West Virginia, are introducing legislation to give the Surface Transportation Board more efficiency and authority, in hopes of easing the problem.

Among the proposed changes: increase the board's authority so it can do its own investigations instead of waiting for a complaint; improve rate review timelines; and increase the number of members from three to five.

Rockefeller and Thune will also lead a commerce hearing Wednesday that will examine rail service backlogs nationwide.

"We think right now, coming into the harvest and knowing the rail issues ahead of it, it's a good time to shine the light on these issues and make the railroads more accountable," Thune said.

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A board spokesman said the agency could not comment on the pending legislation.

Farmers Union members from around the country are in Washington this week for the National Farmers Union 2014 Fly-In and plan to press the rail issue with members of Congress and staffers in the U.S. Department of Agriculture and White House. South Dakota Farmers Union President Doug Sombke and other state presidents from Corn Belt states are also meeting with the chairman of the Surface Transportation Board.

With commodity prices low because of bumper crops, added costs due to the railcar shortage are further eroding profits, including from fines imposed on some farmer-owned cooperatives for not making grain deliveries on time, Sombke said.

"It should really be imposed on the railroad that did not deliver it on time, not the grain deliverer," he said.