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GETTING RAILROADED -- AGAIN

If Sen. Charles Schumer needed any more convincing that he and the rest of the federal government will have to get tough with the railroads choking Western New York business, he's got it now.

It comes in the totally inadequate response from Norfolk-Southern and CSX railroads when asked how they plan to end tie-ups at a Buffalo River drawbridge that are costing local businesses dearly.

The railroads' solution? A new bridge -- but apparently with taxpayers footing much of the bill.

CSX owns the current bridge and won't fund a new one because it doesn't need one. Yet while Norfolk Southern would clearly benefit, it says "public funding is essential" because it can't justify building a new one on its own. Translation: It can't justify bringing its WNY service up to par.

Yet isn't that exactly what private industry is supposed to do in a competitive environment? And there's the rub. The federal Surface Transportation Board did not create a competitive environment here -- as it did elsewhere -- when it divided Conrail's assets between the two.

That means businesses here that rely on rail are at the mercy of the two carriers -- and at the mercy of the STB to recognize its mistake and compensate for it. So far, the compensation has been slow in coming, as some major businesses have had to suspend rail shipments or even temporarily shut down production shifts because of shipping backlogs.

The bridge bottleneck results in large part from the breakup deal, which meant that instead of terminating a run in Buffalo, Norfolk Southern trains coming from the west now also go eastward. That means they need to use CSX's bridge, which already is tied up by CSX trains, creating a real problem.

And that problem means jobs, according to Erie County Industrial Development Agency officials. If the bottleneck persists, shippers will stop shipping through Buffalo and hundreds of jobs linked to the rearranging and servicing of rail cars here will go elsewhere.

And beyond that are the jobs at risk in plants like Ford Motor Co., Occidental Chemical Corp. and other local firms that can't get their products out because of the bottleneck.

The railroads, of course, point to those at-risk jobs as justification for a public subsidy.

But operating efficiently is supposed to be the job of business. Neither railroad could afford to be so cavalier if they didn't have virtual monopolies here, thanks to the STB's weak-kneed oversight in this region and a Conrail-breakup plan that has yet to work.

The bridge debacle is just one indication of how poorly thought-out that plan was. High rail fees that make this region uncompetitive and delays at other points in the system also are problems.

Schumer's office says the local delegation will search for funding to help build a new bridge -- provided the railroads come up with a real plan and say how much they're going to put up to solve their problem.

Yet while both railroads say improvements are being made, it's easy to suspect they will go only as far as the STB pushes them. And the STB is only going as far as the local delegation pushes it.

Schumer has taken up the issue, but said recently he wanted to wait until year's end to see if the railroads could solve the problems on their own. Now he, the rest of the delegation and the area business community have their answer -- and it's a totally inadequate one. Now is the time for the public and private sectors to mass their forces to fight for the economic justice that the STB denied Western New York.

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