Major Rail Bill Clears Senate Committee

A landmark revamping of federal rail regulations cleared the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, but some tough issues including whether to strip railroads of some antitrust immunity will still arise when the bill reaches the full Senate.

"It's an emotional day for me," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D.-W.Va., the panel's chairman. He said he has worked on this issue for 25 years, and for much of that time "I got nowhere."

The legislation is still months from becoming law, since the House of Representatives must still introduce and act on its own version.

The Commerce panel bill reauthorizes the Surface Transportation Board, expands it to five members from three, and gives it independence from the administration plus new investigative powers.

It also requires new competitive access to other railroads for captive shippers, cuts filing fees for STB complaint cases and stops railroads from writing "paper barrier" clauses into line sale contracts to lock shippers into using only the original long-haul carrier.

Rockefeller said months of behind-the-scenes negotiations with shippers and railroads had been very difficult, and the result is a compromise bill that gives neither side all it wants but "works for the economy." He and other senators said it balances shipper access needs with protection of railroad profitability.

Although he pledged months ago to include the antitrust legislation earlier offered by Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., Rockefeller said including it now in the regulatory reform measure "would cause the bill to fail." Instead, Rockefeller said he will continue to work with Kohl and others to later add strong antitrust language.

---by John D. Boyd