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The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing yesterday on freight-rail challenges and issues.Titled, "Freight Rail Transportation: Enhancing Safety, Efficiency and Commerce," the hearing focused on challenges facing the nation's freight-rail network due to higher demand, pending and proposed rules and regulations, and infrastructure needs."As 2013 and 2014's freight-rail delays and service challenges highlighted, rail service is absolutely critical to our nation’s economy. South Dakota farmers scrambled to find rail cars and watched as rail turn times worsened, delaying shipments and creating grain storage challenges for the record breaking wheat, corn, and soybean crops," said U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who chairs the committee, in his opening statement. "However, those delays were not just limited to the northcentral United States, they also extended across the country and impacted every shipping sector and industry. Thankfully, this winter’s relatively mild weather and better service have provided some improvements, but there’s still work to be done."The senator also addressed positive train control (PTC) implementation, stating that although the federally mandated deadline of Dec. 31 is quickly approaching, full implementation remains unattainable due to "immense technical and programmatic challenges.""As a result of these challenges, the USDOT has reported that the deadline will not be met and has offered a proposal to ensure the benefits of PTC are realized," said Thune. "I look forward to working with my colleagues on a legislative fix to ensure that we can set a more realistic implementation timeline for this important safety improvement."American Chemistry Council President and Chief Executive Officer Cal Dooley praised the committee for examining freight-rail issues, including ongoing service problems. "For American manufacturers to remain competitive in a global economy, we need sensible policies to ensure that the nation's rail network remains healthy while promoting greater access to affordable, reliable and efficient rail service," he said in a press release.Although freight-rail rates continue to rise, higher rates aren't translating to better service for many rail customers, Dooley said."Poor rail service continues to be pervasive across the freight-rail industry and is making it more difficult for our members to meet the needs of their customers," he said.The Fertilizer Institute President Chris Jahn, who testified before the committee, agrees that rail service could improve. Nearly all fertilizer shipped across North America touches the rail transportation system at some point, according to the institute."The delivery of fertilizer products in a timely manner is critical to farmers. There is only a narrow window of opportunity to apply the right fertilizer source, at the right rate, at the right time and in the right place," said Jahn. "If farmers do not receive their fertilizer in a timely manner, there are potential consequences for food security and the environment."Service is challenged because the nation's railroads are moving more goods now than since before the Great Recession, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR). Proper management of rail networks means railroads are continuously working with customers to better understand how traffic demand affects the supply of trains, crews and equipment. "Forecasting transportation demand is very difficult, relying extensively on the input from customers, economists and past experience. If demand exceeds forecasts, or if there is an unforeseen need for a particular type of rail car, this can have a temporary impact on service, especially given recent levels of freight traffic," AAR officials said in a "Managing the Network" portion of the association's website. "Railroads are continuously working with customers and developing strategies to improve transportation demand forecasts as well as efficiencies and investments that provide the needed capacity across the world's best freight-rail network."
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