Coal shippers, state regulators argue for new coal data reporting from railroads

The Western Coal Traffic League, American Public Power Association, National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and the Freight Rail Customer Alliance told the U.S. Surface Transportation Board in a June 28 reply brief that the railroads need to report actual weekly coal loadings.

The board on April 29 opened a comment period on a proposal to make permanent a requirement adopted in am interim order that the railroads report weekly actual coal loadings versus planned coal loadings. The group called “Coal Shippers/NARUC” supports the board’s proposal.

“This metric provides direct and frequent information regarding whether the railroads are meeting the service needs of their coal customers and even the carriers’ own loading plans, and whether such divergences are continuing or increasing,” they wrote. “The Association of American Railroads (‘AAR’) and Union Pacific Railroad Company (‘UP’) were the only other entities that addressed this metric in their comments. The concerns raised by them do not outweigh the value of collecting this data.

“The AAR raises the false specter that by adopting this metric, the Board is delving into confidential contracts that are beyond its jurisdiction. This is not true. First, it is well established that the Board can require the collection of data – a point the Board emphasized in its [rulemaking notice]. Second, there is no specific shipper information that would be divulged through this reporting. Third, the railroads have already been reporting this data for over 20 months without any railroad or shipper complaining that sensitive data was publicly released. Fourth, individual contracts, the service requirements under those contracts, and whether the railroad has met its obligations under them is not the issue here. Individual shippers may know how their trains are performing, but that is a far cry from understanding whether the railroads are experiencing system-level difficulties in meeting coal demand.

“This information is vital. Utilities are charged with keeping the lights on and electricity flowing, and many were unable to plan or advise their regulators (i.e., NARUC members) accordingly because their ‘view’ of service was limited only to their own trains. The AAR also suggests that the coal loading versus plan data may not be valuable because plans are not static and customer needs drive the plans; UP makes similar arguments. The AAR again misses the mark. The weekly plan reporting is useful precisely because it reflects the requirements of one of the highest volume commodities on all of the railroads and whether the railroads are able to meet that demand. Over time, a consistent failure to meet demand may indicate that a railroad(s) is experiencing some operational difficulty, and this knowledge is plainly useful to the Board and the railroads’ coal customers – it may even be a valuable data point for shippers of other commodities because the fluidity of the major coal routes can impact other shippers.

“UP suggests that it has no such loading plans. Yet, UP requires all coal customers to use the NCTA coal forecasting tool, which generally results in a railroad-approved monthly loading plan, which may be adjusted periodically. Likewise, UP’s largest coal origin is the Powder River Basin, which it serves jointly with BNSF. The notion that UP has no ‘plan’ for a given week strains credulity given the many trains that it and BNSF load each day, week and month of the year and the need to coordinate their operations. Even if UP lacks a formal ‘loading plan,’ UP undoubtedly estimates its anticipated coal loadings are for a given week in light of its need to plan for dispatching, moving, and staffing such trains, developing maintenance windows, etc. UP has presented no valid reason why the Board should not adopt this metric permanently; if UP operates its system, the largest in the country, without a loading plan, it could certainly indicate that the information is not applicable.

“UP also suggests that revealing coal loadings in regions other than the PRB may result in confidential data being disclosed given the small number of shipments from other production regions. Coal Shippers/NARUC suggest that the simple solution to this problem is for UP or any other affected carrier to make a notation if a single shipper’s data might be revealed rather than report the data. To the extent two or more shippers’ data is being aggregated, the data should be reported.”

The AAR said in its own June 28 reply brief: “The utility of railroad service data is limited to identifying changes and trends; the data cannot be reliably used to understand causality, to compare rail performance across different commodities, or to compare railroads. Contrary to Coal Shippers’ assertion that the reported data is ‘helpful for identifying the causes and effects of delays that may arise,’ the reported data cannot reveal either the causes or the effects of delays. The data are snapshots in time of specific metrics and nothing more.

“For example, weekly average dwell time at origin for a loaded unit train will not reveal the cause of that delay. It will not reveal the effect of that delay on other trains or on customers. It will simply note the number of trains that meet the stated criteria for a given week. An increase or decline in the number may indicate a change in the rail carrier’s service. Or it may not. It may indicate changes to external conditions independent of rail service, such as market changes or disruptions to other segments of the supply chain. Railroads are one link in a globalized supply chain that includes shippers, receivers, trucks, ports, ocean vessels, barges, and shipping intermediaries like warehouses. The presence of any single carload on a railroad at any given time is the result of the culmination of the complex, interdependent global economy.”

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.