Coal groups argue for coal delivery performance data from the railroads

Several entities representing the coal-fired power industry told the U.S. Surface Transportation Board in April 29 comments that the board should require commodity-specific performance reporting by the nation’s major railroads, despite the protests of railroads like the BNSF Railway and CSX Transportation.

The board’s review of whether to require regular data reporting comes at a time when parts of the power industry in the West and Midwest are emerging from a months-long delivery crisis for coal, particularly for Powder River Basin coal moving on the BNSF. Affected power plants included the big Sherburne County power plant of Xcel Energy (NYSE: XEL). The BNSF got caught in a perfect storm of high demand for shipments of various commodities and other factors that cut into its delivery performance, which sharply cut coal plant stockpiles and forced curtailment of power plant operations to preserve those dwindling coal supplies.

The Western Coal Traffic League, American Public Power Association, National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and Edison Electric Institute (collectively called the “Coal Shippers/NARUC”) on April 29 submitted their joint reply comments under a board order served Dec. 30, 2014, in this Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) proceeding. On March 2, Coal Shippers/NARUC, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), other interested shipper groups, the Class I railroads, and the Association of American Railroads (AAR) filed opening comments in this proceeding.

The shipper groups and USDA universally support the Board’s proposed service metrics reporting, with most groups proposing additional performance reporting metrics that the board should require in any final rule. Coal Shippers/NARUC in particular proposed minor changes to the board’s proposal along with additional reporting metrics they believe are critical, including cycle time reporting for major corridors. Cycle times cover how long it takes for a full train to leave a shipping point, like a coal mine, get to the destination, unload, and return empty to the shipping point.

“The railroads and the AAR generally urge the Board not to adopt any reporting standards at this time or to severely limit any reporting if the Board insists on moving forward,” the coal groups noted. “Alternatively, the railroads propose unnecessary delaying tactics, such as meetings with the Board where the railroads can privately detail what data they might be willing to regularly report.

“Coal Shippers/NARUC, USDA and other shippers’ Opening Comments amply demonstrate the need for regular reporting of railroad performance metrics. Thus, while there are slight differences in the exact data that shippers and USDA would like the railroads to report, there is no doubt that transparency into railroad performance metrics is needed and productive.

“Coal Shippers/NARUC reiterate their concerns that the railroads’ voluntary data reporting is too limited and entirely at the mercy of the AAR and its member carriers, such that even the limited data reported by the AAR today could be terminated at any time. Voluntary reporting also does not carry as much assurance of accuracy and reliability. Thus, Coal Shippers/NARUC support the Board’s proposal which should ensure that accurate, timely, and complete data reporting remains available to shippers and the Board alike, and they repeat their initial request that the Board consider certain refinements to the proposal, as well as additional reporting categories.

“Commodity-specific reporting is necessary precisely because each commodity has different operating characteristics. Consequently, the macro-level metrics are almost meaningless to Coal Shippers/NARUC. Instead, it is the coal-specific information, including the additional reporting proposed by Coal Shippers/NARUC that is critical to gaining a clear and concise understanding of conditions on their carriers. It is certainly relevant if performance for one commodity or regional sector has stayed the same or improved while another has deteriorated, especially in the absence of an apparent causal factor such as weather. Moreover, it makes little sense to examine commodity-level data only when the Board has officially recognized a service crisis exists, because by then it may be too late. Reporting during ‘good times’ may provide a useful baseline to help identify where and when deterioration occurs.”

Wrote the BNSF in its April 29 reply comments: “As anticipated in our Opening Comments, the Board has received several renewed requests from associations seeking more specialized reporting of service data, including corridor-specific and additional commodity-specific metrics. The associations seek extensive additional reporting, ranging from expanded commodity-specific measures covering oil seeds, oil seed meal, fertilizer, and vegetable oil [a National Grain and Feed Association request] to average dwell times at each individual interchange for all empty coal unit trains (a Western Coal Traffic League request). Requiring BNSF to provide additional cuts of data for individual commodities or for specific geographic sub-levels on a regular basis would be burdensome and counterproductive to BNSF’s efforts to maintain optimal flow across the entire network, consuming critical resources without significant commensurate benefit. For a majority of the data categories raised in the association comments, individual BNSF shippers already have access to relevant information as it relates to their own shipments on the BNSF network. For the scores of additional figures requested in the comments filed in this proceeding, the commenting parties have not demonstrated a legitimate need that outweighs the burden of ongoing reporting of the increasingly granular cuts of new data sets that they are seeking in this proceeding.”

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.