Soon after hearing electric cooperatives’ concerns about unpredictable deliveries of coal by railroads, the Surface Transportation Board has moved to impose greater oversight of the nation’s four largest rail carriers.

The STB on May 6 ordered BNSF Railway Co., CSX Transportation Inc., Norfolk Southern Railway Co. and Union Pacific to submit service recovery plans by May 20. The four Class I railroads also must file service progress reports beginning June 3 for six months and provide 36 months of historical data.

The companies are required to participate in individual biweekly conference calls for three months to update the board on their progress to improve service.

“We are pleased that the Surface Transportation Board took this quick and decisive action,” said Paul Gutierrez, senior principal on NRECA’s Government Relations team.

“The lack of adequate freight rail service is a major concern to our generation and transmission cooperatives that ship coal for electricity generation. Our member co-ops rely on predictable and efficient rail service to allow them to deliver safe, reliable and affordable electricity.”

Arizona Electric Power Cooperative’s Emily Regis spoke on shippers’ behalf at a recent STB hearing in Washington, D.C.

Regis, who is fuels resource manager at the Benson-based G&T, president of the National Coal Transportation Association and vice president of the Freight Rail Customer Alliance, described the rail system’s dire need for realignment and oversight. Many other businesses echoed her concerns.

“It is unfortunate that the service issues have become so widespread and so severe,” Regis said. “Many utilities, including AEPCO, started experiencing delayed delivery of coal trains and a lack of sufficient crews to operate trains in early 2021. We were hoping rail service would have improved by now, but many shippers have seen a drastic deterioration in rail service over the past couple of months.”

The Arizona G&T and other shippers have been asking the STB for better reporting metrics and more transparency of service data for the delivery of goods by the rail carriers, said Regis, who submitted comments to Congress on these issues in March.

The board’s new order may help turn things around, she said.

“While we know there will be no quick fixes to the current problems of inadequate labor and insufficient equipment that appear to be root causes of the rail service breakdown, the STB’s request for recovery plans and progress reports is a step in the right direction,” Regis said.

“We are hopeful that utilities and other shippers may be able to learn what to expect from the railroads in the coming months in regard to their individual service and how to adjust their own business plans accordingly.”