Feds will re-examine rail service in the West


The U.S. Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that approved the 1996 coupling of the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads, may take another look at that decision.

In approving the 36,000-mile system that connects the Great Lakes, the Mississippi Valley and the Gulf Coast of Texas to West Coast ports from Seattle to San Diego, the board said it would maintain oversight for five years to ensure that UP customers were getting good service at fair prices (HCN, 8/5/96).

Problems began as soon as UP began trying to integrate the SP into its system late last summer.

Coal mines on the Western Slope of Colorado had to stockpile coal or close because UP couldn't bring in trains to haul the coal out. Western Colorado also suffered from a gasoline shortage, because UP was taking days, instead of hours, to deliver gasoline from a Denver refinery to the local distributor in Grand Junction.

But most problems were in Texas, where the Houston rail yards were a tangle of stalled trains, and petrochemical producers said delays were costing them more than $20 million a month (HCN, 11/10/97).

The Surface Transportation Board responded in early November 1997 with an emergency service order that allowed the other big Western railroad, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, to serve UP customers. And UP promised it would have the congestion cleared up by Thanksgiving.

The problems didn't go away. The board extended its emergency service order, and UP promised problems would be solved by Christmas.

More recently, UP has admitted it doesn't know when the gridlock problems will dissolve. It forestalled the anger of Texas shippers in February by agreeing to sell a Texas line to Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

While UP's problems extend beyond Texas, that state gets attention because its powerful railroad commission opposed the merger, as did its governor. Now one of its U.S. senators, Kay Bailey Hutchison, R, has joined Arizona Sen. John McCain, R, in requesting that the Surface Transportation Board examine rail access and competition in Texas and the West.

The board will take written comments until March 26, and conduct oral hearings on April 2. "We invite comments, data, studies and proposals for legislative action," a board spokesman says.

Ed Quillen writes in Salida, Colorado.

You can contact ...

* The Surface Transportation Board on the Web at www.stb.dot.gov; its telephone number is 202/565-1596, and its mailing address is 1925 K St. NW, Washington, DC 20423.

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