Freight Railroads: Industry Health Has Improved, but Concerns about Competition and Capacity Should Be Addressed: GAO-07-94

Hecker, JayEtta Z.
October 2006
GAO Reports;10/9/2006, p1
Government Document
The Staggers Rail Act deregulated the freight rail industry, relying on competition to set rates, and allowed for differential pricing (charging higher rates to those more dependent on rail). The act gave the Surface Transportation Board (STB) authority to develop remedies for shippers "captive" to one railroad and set a threshold for shippers to apply for rate relief. GAO was asked to review (1) changes in the railroad industry since the Staggers Rail Act, including rates and competition; (2) STB actions to address competition and captivity concerns and alternatives that could be considered; and (3) freight demand and capacity projections and potential federal policy responses. GAO examined STB data, conducted interviews, and held an expert panel. Changes in the railroad industry since the Staggers Rail Act are widely viewed as positive, as the industry's financial health has improved and most rates have declined; however, concerns over competition and captivity remain. Rail rates generally declined between 1985 and 2000, then increased slightly from 2001 through 2004. Concerns about competition and captivity remain as traffic is concentrated in fewer railroads. It is difficult to determine the number of "captive" shippers as proxy measures can overstate or understate captivity. Nevertheless, GAO's analysis of limited available measures indicates that the extent of captivity appears to be dropping, but the percentage of traffic traveling at rates substantially over the threshold for rate relief has increased. Also, some areas with access to only one major railroad have higher percentages of traffic traveling at rates above the threshold. These findings may reflect reasonable economic practices by the railroads or a possible abuse of market power. GAO's analysis is limited by available data and proxy measures but suggests that shippers in selected markets may be paying excessive rates, meriting further inquiry and analysis. While STB has taken action, further efforts to improve its rate relief processes and assess competition could help address competition and captivity concerns and inform the merits of proposed alternative approaches. STB's rate relief processes are largely inaccessible and rarely used. STB recognizes this and is taking steps to improve its processes. STB has broad statutory authority to inquire into and report on railroad industry practices and, given a reasonable possibility that some shippers may be paying excessive rates, an assessment of competition could determine whether there is sufficient evidence that market power is being abused in specific markets. While competition between railroads may not always be feasible, alternative approaches have costs and benefits that should be carefully considered to ensure the balance envisioned in the Staggers Rail Act--including the railroads' need for adequate revenues. Significant increases in freight traffic are forecast, and the industry's ability to meet them is...


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