Ag rail satisfaction up in key areas
Ag rail shippers have offered a “positive referendum” on the performance of rail carriers over a challenging past year,
Published: Jun 24, 2012
Ag rail shippers have offered a “positive referendum” on the performance of rail carriers over a challenging past year, Soy Transportation Coalition (STC) Executive Director Mike Steenhoek told FarmWeek.
According to STC’s annual Railroad Report Card survey, the seven major Class I rail grain carriers posted a 3 percent increase in overall customer satisfaction over 2011. The coalition interviewed shippers regarding carrier “on-time” performance, customer service, and costs.
On average, shippers surveyed used five of the seven Class I’s over the previous 12 months. Carrier performance was especially noteworthy given last year’s Missouri/Mississippi River flooding and other weather-related events that “really wrought some havoc on the rail industry” because of railbed issues, Steenhoek said.
Thanks to extensive planning, unexpected disruptions “didn’t catch the railroads flat-footed,” he said. In terms of coordination, rerouting of shipments, and customer communications, he likened carriers to “the military when there’s a major catastrophe.”
Equipment and material generally were in place for timely replacement of flooded/damaged tracks, he said. Steenhoek cited the “commendable” speed with which carriers rehabilitated and/or upgraded damaged tracks.
“It’s not lost on rail customers that if the federal government had had a greater role in the ownership, maintenance, or management of our rail network, we likely wouldn’t have been back up and running as quickly,” he said.
To a certain extent, grain customers in recent years have benefited from a recession-driven decline in commercial freight shipments. Steenhoek was uncertain about the impact economic recovery could have on future rail resource availability and on-time performance.
STC plans added study regarding the investment necessary to meet prospective agricultural rail needs. “A number of fundamentals seem to show that we’re going to need increased capacity,” Steenhoek said.
And individual customer complaints continue to surface. The STC survey noted concerns about “accessorial charges” -- extra costs such as switching fees imposed when freight is moved from one track to another or “overweight fees” related to ice accumulation on individual cars.
Steenhoek nonetheless sees growing customer confidence in the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB), which mediates disputes between shippers and carriers. Where in the past the STB often was perceived as biased toward carriers, shippers are seeing the agency “instituting a more balanced playing field,” he said.
“There’ve been a number of decisions made over the past couple of years that the rail industry fought but where the board ruled in favor of the customer,” he emphasized. “Some were quite meaningful -- there were some teeth in them.”
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