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By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor
Motorists aren’t happy about skyrocketing gasoline prices and railroads aren’t thrilled with escalating diesel costs, either. As railroads have continued to increase their fuel surcharges the past few years to keep up with rising crude oil prices, rail shippers have become increasingly rankled, too. Now, one shipper is trying to take matters into its own hands.
Last month, Dust Pro Inc. filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of New Jersey against the five U.S. Class Is for allegedly “moving in uniform lockstep” to fix fuel surcharge rates.
The suit claims BNSF Railway Co., CSX Transportation, Kansas City Southern Railway Co. (KCSR), Norfolk Southern Corp. and Union Pacific Railroad since mid-2003 have “participated in a conspiracy to fix the prices of rail fuel surcharges applied to freight shipped at unregulated rates,” according to a statement released by law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart Oliver & Hedges L.L.P., which is representing Dust Pro. The suit seeks class action status on behalf of other shippers and unspecified monetary damages from the Class Is.
The railroads’ surcharges bore no direct relationship to their actual fuel cost increases, claims Dust Pro, a Phoenix manufacturer that ships soil stabilizers via rail. As a result, the Class Is “restrained competition in the market for unregulated rail freight transportation services” and “realized billions of dollars in revenues,” the suit claims.
Rates draw complaints
The railroads have “acknowledged that their fuel surcharge program is not a cost recovery mechanism, but a revenue enhancement measure intended to achieve across-the-board increases in the prices charged by defendants,” according to the complaint.
Although the Surface Transportation Board in January ruled that Class Is’ fuel surcharge practices were unreasonable, the decision addressed only rate-regulated traffic, which comprises a minority of all rail traffic, the suit claims. Dust Pro’s complaint addresses unregulated private rail-freight transport contracts and other unregulated rail traffic.
KCSR officials reviewed a copy of the complaint and believe the allegations are without merit, says Doniele Kane, assistant vice president of corporate communications and community affairs for KCSR parent Kansas City Southern.
CSX Corp. officials are certain the railroad’s fuel surcharge practices “comply with applicable laws and regulations,” says spokesman Garrick Francis.
As of press time, NS officials were reviewing the complaint and declined to comment, says spokesman Robin Chapman. BNSF and UP officials also declined to comment.
The picket signs came out at Canadian Pacific Railway on May 16. The Teamsters Canada Rail Conference’s Maintenance of Way Employees Division launched a strike against the railroad because the parties failed to negotiate an agreement on wage increases, benefit improvements and work rules. The union had issued a 72-hour strike notice on May 13.
The previous contract covering the 3,200 CPR track, bridge and structure maintenance workers expired on Dec. 31. The parties have been negotiating a new contract since July 2006.
“We asked for a 4 percent wage increase for 2007 [and] the company is standing firm at 3 percent,” said MOW Division President William Brehl in a prepared statement. “The national average presently for wage increases on contracts settled in 2007 is at 3.4 percent and rising.”
The Class I had presented an offer calling for wage increases of 3 percent, 4 percent and 3 percent over a three-year term, which is consistent with agreements ratified by other unions, according to a CPR statement. The division had increased its wage proposals from 12 percent to 13 percent over the three years, CPR said, adding that its offer also proposed pension and benefit improvements.
To fill in for about 1,200 of the striking maintenance workers, CPR dispatched more than 1,300 MOW-trained management employees soon after the picketing began.
Meanwhile, the Canadian government — which in April passed back-to-work legislation and assigned a federal arbitrator to help resolve a Canadian National Railway Co./United Transportation Union-Canada labor dispute — planned to intervene if the CPR/Teamsters squabble caused “serious economic damage.” A few days after the strike began, Canadian Wheat Board officials expressed concern that a prolonged job action could disrupt shipments of about 2.2 million tons of grain.
On May 21, Norfolk Southern Railway and Union Pacific Railroad shifted eastbound domestic container train traffic from a Memphis, Tenn., corridor to a new Shreveport, La., gateway, shaving 150 miles off the route. Westbound traffic will be transferred to the Shreveport gateway in the third quarter.
Turning up the volume
In the first quarter, North American intermodal volume totaled a record 3.4 million units, up 1.1 percent compared with first-quarter 2006, according to the Intermodal Association of North America. Domestic container volume increased 8.3 percent to 850,147 units and international container volume rose 2.5 percent to 2 million units.
Put to the test
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security established a Rail Test Center at the Port of Tacoma, Wash., to scan cargo for radiation while freight is transferred from ship to rail.
The Regional Transportation District of Denver’s FasTracks program got under way last month. The agency began removing old trolley tracks for the 12.1-mile West Corridor light-rail line, which is scheduled to open in 2013. FasTracks calls for building six light- and commuter-rail lines, and extending three corridors.
State of affairs
The state of New Jersey plans to contribute an additional $1 billion for New Jersey Transit’s $7.5 billion Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) project. The state would fund a total of $1.5 billion over 10 years for ARC, which includes two new single-track tunnels under the Hudson River and a new Manhattan station below 34th Street that will connect with Penn Station.
By invitation only
The Federal Transit Administration formally invited Northstar Corridor officials to apply for federal matching funds for their $307 million commuter-rail line. Expected to open in late 2009, the Minneapolis-to-Big Lake, Minn., line will stretch 40 miles.