The US Surface Transportation Board (STB) is urging railroads to work closely with shippers to address concerns about demurrage practices shippers consider unreasonable and nothing more than revenue generators for the railroads. The federal agency issued a proposed rule on two of three petitions it considered but declined to go beyond a policy statement on the main topic of demurrage and accessorial policies. The statement, however, was clear that railroads must meet certain standards when imposing penalties. Although the decision applies only to non-containerized cargo, the general standards are relevant to the Federal Maritime Commission’s (FMC's) proposed interpretive rule on port demurrage, which remains open for comment through Oct. 31. The STB’s decision on the three petitions is open for comment through Nov. 6. The same questions are at the heart of both inquiries. What are reasonable business practices? What is the line between shippers taking too long to turn assets (containers, boxcars, gondolas, or hopper cars) and unreasonably short periods placing an undue burden on shippers?
The rail demurrage policy statement comes after two days of testimony in May when shippers argued Class I railroads will deliver large bunches of railcars while providing only 24 hours to unload the cargo before assessing penalties. Although the testimony was about commodities, precision scheduled railroading emphasizes longer train sets and can also cause bunching of containers. Class I railroads consider demurrage vital to maintaining network fluidity.