Recent Op-Eds

Freight Rail: South Dakota Depends On It

By Sen. John Thune

August 12, 2016

It doesn’t matter if you’re the farmer in the field who harvests the crops, the manufacturer in the factory who makes the goods, or the consumer at home who relies on the food and energy that’s produced, everyone in the United States benefits from efficient and reliable freight rail. It’s especially important to South Dakota because the state’s economy literally depends on it. And since three times as many rail carloads leave South Dakota compared to those that end up here, there’s a heavy reliance on freight rail to get all of our South Dakota-made products to markets around the country and the world. More products in the hands of consumers means our farmers, ranchers, small business owners, and entrepreneurs have more opportunities to create jobs and grow their businesses.

In order to keep all of the trains running on time, we have to ensure that if and when there are disruptions in our nation’s rail system, all is being done to respond in the most efficient, effective, and timely way possible. Doing so requires a trustworthy and dependable federal agency at the helm. The Surface Transportation Board (STB) has answered that call since 1996, but it hasn’t been without its challenges. In order to get this federal agency where it needs to be, I introduced first-of-their-kind reforms that were adopted on a broad bipartisan basis by my colleagues in the House and Senate and were signed into law late last year.

To get a sense for how these reforms are being implemented, I recently brought the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, the committee I’ve chaired for the last 19 months, directly to South Dakota. Not only was the committee’s field hearing in Sioux Falls a good opportunity to track these ongoing reforms, but we were able to examine ways in which the new law could benefit South Dakota businesses too. And who better to hear from than the people who are directly impacted by the STB’s decisions?

I was thankful that representatives from POET, the Missouri River Energy Services, the South Dakota Corn Growers, and CHS, Inc., spent part of their day sharing their stories with us. As a result, I’m convinced now more than ever the reforms we made to the STB are having a positive effect, but don’t take my word for it. Dan Mack, the vice president of transportation and terminal operations at CHS, told the committee that “The rail industry has changed a great deal over the past twenty years, and this law is helping to modernize the STB to better reflect this new reality.”

The new law expedites rate review timelines and expands voluntary arbitration to better serve as an alternative to lawsuits, which will greatly improve the way rate cases are handled. It also increases proactive problem-solving and accountability by giving the STB the authority to launch investigations on its own. It makes the board’s activities more transparent and accountable by requiring them to track and report on service issues, and it creates a more functional and more collaborative board by expanding it from three to five members. Taken as a whole, America’s freight rail industry is in a much better position to deliver on the ever-expanding needs of the busy and hard-working people who call the USA home.  ‎