Thursday, October 3, 2013

US Panel on Freight for 21st Century Discuss Rail, Road and Water Borne Cargoes

Expert Opinions from Agriculture, Chemical and Other Industries Sought
Shipping News Feature

US – The meeting earlier this week of the Panel on 21st Century Freight Transportation was delayed an hour due to the hiatus currently enveloping the Washington political scene but the turnout was sufficient to see the latest meeting of the group which aims to improve links in every mode of transport, from pipeline, through air, road, rail and water, get under way regardless. Chairman John Duncan’s (Republican, Tennessee) opening remarks stressed how competition these days emanated from many quarters where before there was none and it was essential for the US to continuously investigate ways to deliver transport systems more efficiently.

The Chairman assured those present that a full report on the panel’s work so far would be issued to the full committee by the end of October 2013. Duncan stressed the continuing importance of manufacturing and agriculture, saying the two constituted 20% of the nation’s GDP. The purpose of the meeting was to gain the perspectives of the nation’s freight system from those who had to use it and there was a cross section of industry stakeholders willing to speak out.

Principal witnesses were Tom Kadien, Senior Vice President, Consumer Packaging, International Paper; F. Edmond Johnston, III, Sustainability Manager, DuPont; William Roberson, Materials & Logistics Manager, Nucor Steel Berkeley and Bill J. Reed, Vice President, Public Affairs, Riceland Foods. A video of the meeting plus copies of all the witnesses written testimonies are viewable HERE.

Tom Kadien felt improvements to road transport could be implemented without compromising safety. He advocated the introduction of greater permitted axle weights saying that, although his company was the largest user of rail box cars in the country, Congress needed to act on the Safe and Efficient Transportation Act to make 53 foot trucks more efficient and productive and permit six axle trucks loaded to weights of up to 97,000 pounds to operate on the Interstate Highway system. He went on to recommend that the panel support harbour dredging projects in US ports to maintain viability, particularly in the light of the Panama Canal expansion programme.

Mr Johnston explained that the chemical industry transported 847 million tonnes across the US in 2012 and that road, rail and barge were all key components for DuPont, with the industry being rail freight’s second most important customer. He pointed out that since the 1980 Staggers Act, the number of available rail freight companies had fallen from 26 to just 7 by 2001 with a resultant rise in rates. In the past decade rail freight rates had risen at three times the rate of inflation, up 76% in ten years, and he felt a reduction in regulation is necessary to facilitate growth.

Mr Johnson also pressed for a programme of works to ensure the inland waterways and ports were kept open with, once again, dredging being a key issue plus repairs to bridges, locks and dams a priority. The other concern for the chemical lobby was maintenance of the existing legislation under the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act (HMTA) which Johnson asked the panel to continue to support.  

On behalf of the steel producers Mr Robertson also reiterated the importance of a properly conducted dredging program. With just one inch of draught reduction costing 17 tonnes of payload on every barge, failure to attend to care of the inland waterways was unacceptable. That said he went on to state that all the facets of the transport system must be viewed as a whole and keeping the US globally competitive required investment across the board.

Speaking for agricultural producers Bill Reed went over much of the same ground regarding rail and water transport but stressed that with freshness such a key issue the state of the nation’s highways was of particular importance to the trade. He pointed out that, although there had been investment it was never enough and cited Arkansas, a key rice producing region, as an example where recently 156 bridges were found structurally deficient and in need of rehabilitation or replacement.

Mr Duncan closed the meeting saying that the proliferation of free enterprise around the world was the very thing threatening US enterprise and requesting those present to make any further comments which they thought would be of interest ‘within the next week’ in view of the short time available before the Panel had to report before the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

Photo: Congressman John J Duncan Jr. leads the discussion.