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The Staggers Rail Act of 1980 is a United States federal law that deregulated the American railroad industry to a significant extent, and replaced the regulatory structure that existed since the 1887 Interstate Commerce Act.
In the aftermath of the Great Depression and World War II, many railroads were driven out of business due to competition from the new interstate highway system and airlines. The rise of the automobile led to the end of passenger train service on most railroads. Trucking businesses had become major competitors by the 1930s with the advent of improved paved roads, and after the war they expanded their operations as the highway network grew, and acquired increased market share of freight business.:219 During this time, however, the railroads continued to be regulated by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) and a complex system for setting shipping rates.
The Staggers Act followed the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act of 1976 (often called the "4R Act"), which reduced federal regulation of railroads and authorized implementation details for Conrail, the newly created northeastern railroad system. The 4R reforms included allowance of a greater range for railroad pricing without close regulatory restraint, greater independence from collective rate making procedures in rail pricing and service offers, contract rates, and, to a lesser extent, greater freedom for entry into and exit from rail markets.
Although the 4R Act established these guidelines, the ICC at first did not give much effect to its legislative mandates. However, as regulatory change began to appear in the 1976-79 period, including the phasing in of the loss of collective ratemaking authority, most of the major railroads shifted away from their effort to maintain the historic regulatory system, and came to support greater freedom for rail pricing, both as to higher and lower rail rates. Major railroad shippers also continued to believe that they would be better served by more flexibility to arrive at tailored arrangements that were mutually beneficial to a particular shipper, and to the carrier serving a particular shipper. These judgments supported a second round of legislation.
The major regulatory changes of the Staggers Act were as follows:
The Act also had provisions allowing the Commission to require access by one railroad to another railroad's facilities where one railroad had in effect "bottleneck" control of traffic. These provisions dealt with "reciprocal switching" (handling of railroad cars between long-haul rail carriers and local customers) and trackage rights. However, these provisions did not have as much effect as those described above.
The act was named for Congressman Harley Staggers (D-WV), who chaired the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee. Although it is traditional for laws to be known by the names of their sponsors, this is believed to be the first (but not last) case in which the sponsor's name was officially incorporated into the text of a Federal statute.
Studies of the rail industry showed dramatic benefits for both railroads and their users from this alteration in the regulatory system.:253–4 According to the Department of Transportation's Freight Management and Operations section's studies, railroad industry costs and prices were halved over a ten-year period, the railroads reversed their historic loss of traffic (as measured by ton-miles) to the trucking industry, and railroad industry profits began to recover after decades of low profits and widespread railroad insolvencies. In 2007 the Government Accountability Office reported to Congress that "The railroad industry is increasingly healthy and rail rates have generally declined since 1985, despite recent rate increases... There is widespread consensus that the freight rail industry has benefited from the Staggers Rail Act."
The Association of American Railroads, the principal railroad industry trade association, stated that the Staggers Act has led to a 51 percent reduction in average shipping rates, and that $480 billion has been reinvested by the industry into their rail systems.
The Staggers Act was one of three major deregulation laws passed by Congress in a two-year period, as the cumulative result of efforts to reform transport regulation begun in 1971, during the Richard Nixon Administration. The other two laws were the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 and the Motor Carrier Act of 1980. This legislation in effect superseded almost a century of detailed regulation begun with the establishment of the ICC in 1887. The Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act of 1995 abolished the ICC, and created its successor agency, the Surface Transportation Board, an administrative affiliate of the United States Department of Transportation.