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RAILROADING WNY

When the head of the federal agency that oversees rail transportation comes here, she won't come lacking either options or the authority to remedy the mess her agency has made of this area's freight rail service.

All that the Surface Transportation Board has lacked so far is the will to follow through on promises to make sure this region's economy isn't choked off by the board's failure to guarantee competition here.

That competition is needed to insure the same low costs and good service that other regions enjoy. Without it, auto plants, grain mills and other pillars of the Western New York economy face unfair costs as well as delays in receiving or shipping products by rail.

There are several remedies the STB could impose, including:

Shared access areas, in which local plants could negotiate with either CSX Corp. or Norfolk-Southern Corp. railroads to carry their products, instead of being limited to just one, as they are under the current STB-approved arrangement for dividing Conrail's assets between the two.

Trackage rights for each railroad here, so that each could use the other's rail lines to serve a particular WNY business. That would allow a company to switch rail lines when it feels its freight carrier is not providing adequate service.

Emergency orders, which would let the two railroads -- as well as other regional carriers like the Canadian National or Canadian Pacific railroads -- step in, regardless of who controls a given set of tracks.

Financial sanctions that would make it worth the railroads' time to clear up whatever hurdles exist to giving Western New York businesses the rail service they need and deserve.

Local officials note that the board has used some of these measures elsewhere. For instance, it issued emergency orders to improve service out West when the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads merged two years ago.

So it's not pie-in-the-sky solutions Western New York businesses are seeking, either in the federal lawsuit filed to prompt STB action or in bringing the chairwoman here for a direct appeal.

The STB erred in not mandating a competitive environment here when Conrail broke up and its assets were divided between CSX and Norfolk Southern. With winter approaching -- with bad weather and increased grain, auto and fuel shipments likely to exacerbate current service problems -- this area needs relief now. And it shouldn't take a lawsuit to get it.

Sen. Charles Schumer has taken an active interest in the issue, joining Reps. Jack Quinn and John LaFalce in putting pressure on the STB. Some of the pressure from officials and business leaders already has paid off with Norfolk Southern's plans to expand its rail-yard facilities to try to eliminate some bottlenecks and backlogs. But that's only a partial solution.

The real answer is the creation of a competitive environment here so that local businesses have a choice, and the rail carriers have an economic incentive to shape up. After all, that's how our competitive economy is supposed to work. It doesn't make sense that Western New York's businesses have to compete in that economy, but its rail carriers don't.

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