Freight Rail Economic Regulation 101

Today’s economic regulatory framework is based on sound economics and market-based competition. It allows private railroads to make the investments needed to remain the world’s safest and most efficient freight rail system. The Surface Transportation Board (STB) oversees this framework. Railroads, unlike other freight transportation modes, fully cover the costs of their privately-owned infrastructure. STB policies encourage investment, not deter it.


Railroads need to be able to maintain their networks.

The STB  is an independent federal agency charged with the economic regulation of the freight railroads. The STB directly impacts the viability of privately-owned freight railroads, which support nearly every industrial, wholesale, retail and resource-based sector of the economy. Congress partially deregulated the railroad industry in 1980 to help save it from the brink of ruin. Today, the STB maintains economic oversight of the industry’s business dealings.

The Board serves a crucial role adjudicating and mediating rate, service and access disputes between railroads and their customers. In so doing, the Board has a statutory duty defined by Congress to ensure railroads can earn enough revenues to maintain their vast networks of approximately 140,000 miles. Without capital to reinvest in their networks, Congress feared railroads would return to financial ruin and the cascading impacts of underinvestment would negatively affect safety and efficiency.

Re-regulatory efforts put America’s economy at risk.

Congress charged the STB to regulate only when there is no effective competition. In fact, Congress explicitly did not direct the STB to make major changes when it reauthorized the Board in 2015. Instead, it reiterated the need for the Board to assist railroads to earn revenues to cover “the infrastructure and investment needed to meet the present and future demand for rail services.

Railroads account for roughly 40% of the U.S. long-distance freight volume (measured by ton-miles). With the USDOT projecting freight volumes will grow 30% by 2040, railroads are clearly significant to the economy now and in the future. Yet, the STB is entertaining major regulations that directly threaten freight rail’s ability to invest. Most troubling is forced access (aka competitive or reciprocal switching), which would compromise network efficiency by requiring railroads to turn over their traffic to competitors at potentially below-market rates. Another problematic proposal is  Final Offer Rate Review (FORR), which would replace careful deliberation about rail rates with a single binary decision.

Today, the vast majority of rail traffic is competitive and the current regulatory system allows freight railroads to invest billions into maintaining and modernizing their network. By forcing railroads to lower their rates to certain customers to below-market levels at the expense of other customers, the STB would ultimately hinder U.S. commerce and increase the costs of consumer goods. Market indicators are not driving this push for re-regulatory action. It is an effort by some stakeholders to gain a competitive advantage through rates lower than the transportation market naturally supports.

Railroads are private enterprises, not public utilities.

The STB should look to the future while recognizing the complex and competitive nature of the market. Freight railroads face intense competition from trucks, barges and other market forces. To respond to a changing and competitive marketplace — and better serve emerging customers — railroads continually transform through investments in infrastructure, equipment, operations and technology. In fact, railroads are much more capital intensive than most industries, spending, on average, six times more as a percentage of revenue than the average U.S. manufacturer.

Enacting regulations like forced access or FORR would expand the STB’s oversight of rates and routing, which would limit rail investment. Railroads need a regulatory framework that allows them to continue investing back into their private network as they adapt to technological, regulatory, market and competition changes over time. Railroads — unlike other freight transportation modes — cover the vast majority of costs required to maintain and modernize their privately-owned infrastructure. STB policies should encourage investment, as Congress directs, not deter it. To ensure railroads continue providing safe and efficient service, the STB should:

  • Conduct cost-benefit analysis for any proposed regulation (as advocated by the industry in a petition for rulemaking), which the OMB has guided other agencies to do.
  • Update the rate case process and root it in sound economic principles to lessen the time and expenses railroads and shippers expend to adjudicate.
  • Develop a modern regulatory system that relies on free markets, recognizes the capital-intensive nature of railroads, and supports the continued evolution of rail carriers and the market.

Smart regulations allow freight rail to invest in its network.

Today’s successful economic regulatory framework explicitly recognizes railroads’ need to earn adequate revenue to make investments into the network that powers our nation. In fact, 8 in 10 American adults agree the private freight rail industry is critical to our economy. Today, freight railroading is extremely safe and efficient, with a freight train, on average, moving one ton of freight more than 480 miles per gallon of fuel. Railroads also haul about 33% of U.S. exports, allowing U.S. industries to compete abroad. Additionally, the average rail shipper can move much more freight for about the same price it paid nearly 40 years ago.

History shows the consequences of bad regulations.

By the 1970s, decades of increasingly stringent government regulation threatened the very existence of the U.S. freight railroad industry. Thanks in part to today’s sound economic framework, America’s freight railroads operate the safest, most efficient freight rail network in the world. The STB’s proposed regulations would push railroads — and America — backwards.


The 1970s: Railroads on the Brink of Ruin

By the 1970s, archaic regulations, together with intense competition from other modes of transportation left most major railroads in the Northeast (including the giant Penn Central) and several major Midwestern railroads bankrupt. Railroads lacked the billions of dollars they needed to properly maintain their tracks. By 1976, more than 47,000 miles of track had to be operated at reduced speeds because of unsafe conditions. “Standing derailments” where a railcar simply fell off poorly maintained track happened often.

Railroads’ average rate of return had been falling for decades. By 1978, the railroad share of intercity freight had fallen to 35%, down from 75% in the 1920s. The status quo was untenable, so Congress had two options: nationalization — at a continuing cost of untold billions of dollars — or a move toward more reasonable, balanced regulation to replace the excessive regulation of the past.

1980s: The Staggers Act Creates a Rail Renaissance

Congress wisely chose balanced regulation and passed the Staggers Rail Act of 1980. By passing Staggers, Congress recognized that America’s freight railroads — the vast majority of which are private companies that operate on infrastructure that they own, build, maintain and pay for themselves — faced intense competition for most of their traffic, but excessive regulation prevented them from competing effectively.

To survive, railroads needed a common-sense regulatory system that allowed them to act like most other businesses in terms of managing their assets and pricing their services. The Staggers Act eliminated many of the most damaging regulations that hindered efficient, cost-effective freight rail service. Among other things, Staggers:

  • Allowed railroads to price competing routes and services according to market demand and operate over their most efficient routes.
  • Allowed railroads and shippers to enter into confidential contracts. Short line and regional railroads, most of which are new since Staggers, operate approximately 50,000 miles in 49 states, preserving rail service and rail jobs that otherwise would have been lost if not for the Staggers Act.
  • Streamlined procedures for the sale of rail lines to new short line railroads.
  • Explicitly recognized railroads’ need to earn adequate revenues.

Today: America's Freight Rail Network is the Envy of the World

By permitting a more customer-focused, market-based approach to railroading, the Staggers Act has greatly benefited railroads, their customers, and our economy at large, just as Congress intended when it passed the legislation. Since 1980, freight railroads have poured nearly $740 billion of their own funds back into their operations to create the best freight rail network in the world and are continuing to innovate for an even safer and more efficient future.

Helpful to Know

  • Forced Access (aka competitive or reciprocal switching): A proposal that would compromise network efficiency by requiring railroads to turn over their traffic to competitors at potentially below-market rates.
  • Final Offer Rate Review (FORR): A damaging STB proposal that would replace careful deliberation about rail rates with a single binary decision.
  • Revenue Adequacy: A calculation that helps the STB determine the minimum amount of revenue railroads need to maintain a healthy network. The STB must not use this calculation to to impose earnings regulation because it could threaten continued investment in — and viability of — the U.S. freight rail industry.
  • Differential Pricing: The most economically efficient way for railroads to cover their costs. It allows them to charge relatively higher rates to customers who have fewer competitive options than to customers with more competitive options.
  • Cost Benefits Analysis: A tool that helps agencies like the STB better understand the pros and cons of regulatory actions.
  • Staggers Act of 1980: Partially de-regulated the industry in 1980, allowing  private railroads to make the investments needed to become one of the world’s safest and most efficient transportation networks.