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Article by munger    (02-19-09 10:36 AM)

And then of course there is the zeal for regulation and goverment interference. From Todays WSJ:

A federal agency handed down a $345 million penalty Tuesday against Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., ruling it overcharged two Western power companies by tens of millions of dollars since 2004.

The record penalty is the latest chapter in a growing dispute over whether the nation's biggest railroads have too much power to raise prices on their customers, some of whom have few or no alternatives for shipping their goods.

In a 3-0 decision, the federal Surface Transportation Board ruled that the Fort Worth, Texas, company -- the largest railroad in the country by revenue -- charged unlawfully high rates to Western Fuels Association Inc. and Basin Electric Power Cooperative Inc., which provide electricity to residents in nine Western and Midwestern states.

The agency concluded that the utilities were "captive shippers," meaning they had only one choice of railroad to ship eight million tons of coal each year from the mines in Wyoming's Powder River Basin. The utilities also couldn't ship the coal by any other mode of transportation, the Surface Transportation Board concluded.

Burlington Northern called the ruling "an outcome-oriented decision in favor of the shipper," adding that it intends to "pursue all legal remedies."

Surface Transportation Board officials say the penalty is the largest handed down since the agency was created in 1996. Under the ruling, Burlington Northern must reimburse the utilities $100 million for overcharges since 2004, when the companies filed their complaint. The remaining $245 million represents the difference between what the railroad will be allowed to charge the utilities for the next 15 years and what it would have earned absent the decision.

The ruling comes as legislation pending in Congress would make it easier for some customers to challenge railroad rates and subject the industry to stiffer antitrust scrutiny.

The railroads' critics have been especially vocal in recent months as railroads have earned healthy profits even as freight volumes have fallen dramatically with the global slowdown.

Write to Alex Roth at alex.roth@wsj.com

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