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Rail Cost Control Blog - Rail Rates

Rail Rates – When is Enough, Enough?

Carriers and shippers agree: railroads need to be profitable to have a healthy and vibrant railroad system. To provide the best service possible, railroads need to be able to make the capital investment needed to move traffic efficiently and that requires a good return on their investment in track, equipment, and facilities. Carriers and shippers, therefore, agree that railroads need to have a rate structure for their traffic that allows them to operate profitably and efficiently. 

The disagreement between carriers and shippers regarding soaring rates comes down to when is enough, enough? 

In other words, when are the rates and rate increases imposed on rail traffic excessive? This is an important issue as excessive rates can have many negative consequences. Excessive rail rates can be damaging to the U.S. economy, the economy of individual states as well as the financial strength of individual companies. The negative impact occurs because excessive rail rates can: 

  • Cause companies to move production off-shore; 
  • Result in an increase in imports into the U.S.; 
  • Cause bulk traffic to move from rail to already congested highways; 
  • Limit capital investment at operations subject to ever increasing high rail rates; and, 
  • Put companies at a competitive disadvantage in domestic and export markets. 

Shippers understand that rail rates which are too low can be damaging to railroads. Railroads do not, however, seem to fully recognize that excessively high rail rates are damaging to both rail shippers, AND the economy. The question that needs to be answered, is: 

What are “reasonable” rates for railroads to charge for moving their traffic? 

The level of rate increase for rail freight, compared to other benchmarks, is a good indicator of railroads concern about the impact of their rates on companies. The illustration below tracks the historical percent change in rail rates against rates for long-distance trucking and inflation. Rail rates are determined using Association of American Railroads (AAR) average revenue per car data.

Rail Rates Increased More than Inflation

The illustration shows that rail rates increased by 94.2 % over the fifteen years between 2004 and 2019 (2019 is the last year reported).

During this same time frame, Long Distance Trucking freight rates increased 31.7%. Rail rates, therefore, increased three times more than the rates for trucking which is the railroad’s primary competitor. Inflation, as measured by the CPI, increased 35.4%. Rail rates, therefore, increased 2.7 times more than overall inflation.

As a result of the change in economics between truck and rail, trucks are now competing against railroads for longer distance movements. The big increase in the cost of rail freight has made trucking less expense than rail for many movements. This has resulted in traffic being taken off rail which contributes to greater congestion on highways. The cost of moving traffic by truck no longer appears to be effective competition as railroads have increased their rates 63% more than truck rates over the last fifteen years.

The remarks in this article should be qualified by saying that we have the highest admiration for the management of railroads. They have been a huge success for their investors as shown by the increase in the value of their stock. Rail management has taken the advantages and disadvantages of the current regulatory system and used it very effectively to create value for its stockholders. That is what effective management of any company should do and the railroads have done it better than most. On the other hand, shippers are concerned that railroads have become too adept at using the existing regulatory environment to their advantage.

Shippers are concerned about the power of railroads to keep churning out rate increases even as shippers fight for survival during these troubled times.

In looking at the current railroad industry I am reminded of a negotiation I was involved in many years ago. In this negotiation I asked the question, “When is enough, enough?” The response was very honest, “It is never enough!” The troubling fact is that this appears to be the mantra when it comes to rail rates today.

 

Escalation Consultants, Inc. developed the Rail Cost Control (“RCC”) program to help shippers reduce rail expenses by managing costs and empowering negotiations. For more information about RCC and other related articles, visit the RCC Blog.

 

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Track Rail Rate Increased Over Time

Use Past Rail Rate Increases to Reduce Current Rates

Would your position on a proposed rate increase of 3% for a rail move be different if that rate had already increased by 40% in prior time periods?

Many shippers answer this question with a resounding YES! The reason – Your railroad knows how its rates have changed.  If your past rate problems are not addressed in current rate negotiations this either indicates that:

  • You have forgotten about the large rate increases of the past; or,
  • Large rate increases are not causing you a problem.

Either situation can be detrimental to a shipper’s rates, as silence does not send the proper message to a railroad.

If rates increased 20% over two bid cycles, it doesn’t matter whether the 2021 or 2019 rate increases caused the problem. The 20% rate increase is the problem!

Past performance can be a powerful source of leverage for obtaining lower rates from railroads. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to keep track of the impact past rate increases have had on current rates and volumes for specific moves. This is especially true when you have employee turnover as you lose the knowledge of people previously involved with your moves.

Large rail rate increases make an effective Database Management System (DMS) an essential tool for shippers. This is the reason for the DMS in the Rail Cost Control Program (RCC).  The DMS automatically identifies and quantifies past rate problems and establishes an effective source of leverage for shippers. The RCC makes rail negotiations more productive and helps better control the cost of rail freight.

 

Rail Cost Control (“RCC”) is a program developed by Escalation Consultants, Inc. to help shippers reduce rail expenses by managing costs and empowering negotiations. For more information about RCC and other related articles, visit the RCC Blog.”

Database Management System