Bills Target Rail Competition Many Customers Feel 'Trapped' by Absence of Choices

Article excerpt

Competition isn't something shipping railroads such as Jacksonville-based CSX Transportation take seriously enough, a leading railroad expert contends. And because of that, customers of the country's largest railroads have to endure high prices and bad service.

Those customers, who ship products ranging from coal to cars on U.S. railroads, got a chance yesterday to hear what some policy-makers in Washington, D.C., are trying to do about the situation.

About 200 shippers gathered in a hotel conference room for the second annual Rail Customer Forum, partially sponsored by the Alliance for Rail Competition, a Washington, D.C.-based railroad watchdog group.

"You don't get to choose a carrier," Alliance for Rail Competition President Diane Duff said in an interview before the forum. "And then you get trapped into getting whatever service they do provide at whatever prices they want to charge."

Duff and dozens of other rail shippers support a pair of bills being proposed in the Senate and House of Representatives that would force railroads to put a greater emphasis on competition. The bills -- offically called the Railroad Competition and Service Improvement Act of 1999 -- are partially designed to eliminate old rules banning two railroads from serving the same area. The bill's sponsors hope that will be one way to lower prices.

One group expected to be lobbying Congress heavily on opening competition is the Chemical Manufacturers Association, which represents hundreds of shippers that send time-sensitive products daily on railroads. Spokesman Mike Heimowitz said many of those shippers are known in the industry as captive because there is only one rail line that serves the area where they manufacture their products.

The association said the wave of mergers over the last 20 years means just four major railroad carriers are left to serve the entire country, leaving little room for competition. …