Western Coal Traffic League seeks answers on BNSF service problems

The Western Coal Traffic League, which represents power plant operators that rely on western U.S. coal, particularly from the Powder River Basin, asked the U.S. Surface Transportation Board on March 24 to open a formal proceeding on continuing service problems at the BNSF Railway.

BNSF’s “well-publicized” service problems in the western coal transportation marketplace have worsened, show no signs of abating and are beginning to adversely impact service provided by other western rail carriers, the league said.

WCTL is a voluntary association, whose regular membership consists entirely of shippers of coal mined west of the Mississippi River. WCTL members currently ship and receive in excess of 140 million tons of coal by rail each year.

WCTL is asking that the board institute a formal proceeding to investigate BNSF’s service problems and to take two actions immediately: institute a public hearing to address the problem of BNSF’s service failures; and order BNSF to submit periodic public filings in this proceeding containing pertinent coal service metrics, as well as any service recovery plan that BNSF has developed.

On March 14, WCTL informed the board that BNSF’s service problems had reached crisis proportions for numerous BNSF coal transportation customers, the league added. WCTL provided specific examples of how the collapse in BNSF service is adversely impacting utility coal shippers, and their utility customers:

  • Precariously low stockpiles – often dipping below 10 days.
  • Forced price increases into electric markets to protect limited coal stockpiles.
  • Increased electric costs as a result of reduced coal-fired generation and its replacement with higher priced generation – additional costs for one utility were several million dollars in January alone.
  • Attempts to rebuild coal piles have been unsuccessful as BNSF moves from one inventory “fire” to the next.
  • Lack of train sets for shippers using railroad-provided cars.

WCTL said it is particularly interested in obtaining BNSF’s answers to three critical questions at hearing: why these problems came about; how long it expects the problems to last; and what it is going to do to fix it. “To the best of WCTL’s knowledge, BNSF management has not publicly provided the Board, or its customers, with answers to these three basic questions,” the filing said. “BNSF’s customers, and the Board, deserve answers – on the record.”

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.