WASHINGTON — The U.S. Surface Transportation Board has pronounced the Gulf Coast rail problems sufficiently cleared up to lift its emergency orders, but some plastics companies say enough trouble remains in the Houston area to warrant more action.
STB's July 31 decision also prompted lobbyists for the plastics industry and other shippers to press their case in a much stronger way on Capitol Hill. The plastics industry needs to sell Congress on its long-range solution — forcing Union Pacific Railroad Co. to divest part of its network — said Maureen Healey, director of transportation issues for the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.
The STB decision ``sends the strongest message that the STB has sent to date that ... all hope is lost,'' she said. ``I do not see any hope that the STB is looking out for the shipper community.''
UP welcomed STB's decision, and said it means the agency recognizes that enough improvements had been made that the railroad does not have to allow other carriers access to its Houston customers.
UP said all its main lines in Houston are fluid, the number of sidings blocked south of Kansas City, Kan., was back to normal levels and train speeds on major routes had increased from less than 10 mph in late 1997 to 13-16 mph in late July.
Some plastics producers, such as DuPont, have settled lawsuits against UP.
``We are not saying service is super,'' said UP spokesman John Bromley. ``We are just saying there is no emergency.''
STB declined to comment beyond its order, which said no emergency remained.
But some plastics companies say that while service is improving slightly in Houston, it remains far below normal.
In January 1996, before the problems began, shipments from the plastics hub in Houston to anywhere on Union Pacific's network averaged six days, half of what it was in late July, Healey said. And getting back the empty railroad cars went from 7.5 days on average in January 1996 to 14 days now, she said.
Houston-based Solvay Polymers Inc. still takes four to five days to ship a railroad car out of Houston, compared with two to three days before the service problems began, said Mike Scherm, director of logistics and customer service.
Solvay is spending ``multisix figures'' extra to ship its resin by truck to get it to customers on time, and enlarged its 3,000 railroad car fleet by 10-20 percent because of the slowdown, he said. A railroad car leases for about $600 a month, he said.
Traffic tie-ups recently caused Salt Lake City-based Huntsman Corp. to pull back four cars of styrene that sat for 30 days and started to polymerize and release fumes, said spokesman Don Olsen.
Huntsman and Solvay both cited problems shipping to the West Coast. UP's Bromley said the Asian financial crisis is fueling record imports to ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Diane Duff, executive director of the Washington-based shippers group Alliance for Rail Competition, said Congress is very likely to postpone any substantive action until next year, given election-year politics and the influence railroads exert in Washington.
If the large East Coast merger of Conrail into CSX and Norfolk Southern proceeds smoothly and the Union Pacific situation does not get worse, there will be much less pressure on Congress to act, said Tom White, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads in Washington.