Senate Commerce Committee WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation June 25, on a voice vote, approved the bipartisan “Railroad Reform, Enhancement, and Efficiency Act,” sponsored by Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), with seven amendments. The measure improves rail safety, reauthorizes Amtrak services and improves existing passenger rail infrastructure. It also leverages private sector investment, empowers states and cuts red tape to make critical infrastructure dollars go further.

“Senator Wicker and Sen. Booker worked hard to build a bipartisan consensus on the way forward for safer and more reliable passenger rail service following the tragic derailment of Amtrak 188,” said Commerce Committee chairman Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). “First and foremost, this legislation enhances safe travel by helping implement Positive Train Control technology, grade crossing improvements, requiring inward facing cameras to monitor crews on passenger trains and other safety measures. The committee’s vote puts passenger rail service on a more sustainable course by focusing resources on the most critical infrastructure improvements, streamlining burdensome processes to accelerate project delivery and demanding more accountability in Amtrak’s accounting structure and investment decisions.”

The legislation authorizes Amtrak for the next four years at an average $1.65 billion a year. Additionally, $570 million in grant funding is authorized every year, highlighted by a grant program that consolidates previous separate, siloed authorizations into a streamlined, competitive program. These competitive grants would go toward programs related to capital improvements, alleviating rail congestion, improving grade crossings, implementing Positive Train Control and other safety and infrastructure projects.

Highlights of S. 1626, as amended and approved by the committee:

Enhancing Safety

  • Positive Train Control – Advances deployment of Positive Train Control technology by authorizing grants and prioritizing loan applications to support its implementation.
  • Inward Facing Cameras – Building on voluntary efforts by Amtrak, the bill requires all passenger railroads to install inward-facing cameras to more effectively monitor train crews and to improve accident investigations.
  • Grade crossings – Requires grade crossing action plans to facilitate and improve state grade crossing safety efforts through engineering, education and enforcement.
  • Speed limit enforcement – Requires speed limit action plans to require all passenger railroads to evaluate high-risk track segments and address automatic train control modifications, crew communication and other speed enforcement issues. This measure is complemented by other requirements for signage and alerters.
  • Close call reporting – Encourages the use of confidential close call reporting system programs to identify hazards before they lead to accidents.
  • Focusing resources on safety – Consolidates existing grant programs to focus resources on the most critical safety and infrastructure improvements.
  • Indexing the liability cap to inflation – Adjusts passenger rail liability cap for inflation from its 1997 level, from $200 to $295 million, adjusts it every 10 years for inflation, and applies the revised cap to the Amtrak accident on May 12, 2015.

A Sustainable Course for Passenger Rail

  • Leveraging competition – Requires the Department of Transportation (DOT) to solicit and facilitate competition from carriers other than Amtrak to improve service and reduce subsidy costs.
  • TRAIN Act – Includes provisions offered Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) in the TRAIN Act (S. 769) to streamline the permitting process for rail improvements to cut red tape on critical infrastructure projects.
  • Reliable business metrics – Requires Amtrak to develop methodologies for determining what routes and services it should provide.
  • Fiscally sustainable routes – Establishes a working group for the restoration of passenger rail service east of New Orleans and creates a competitive grant program for fiscally-sustainable routes, potentially including the restoration of service abandoned after Hurricane Katrina.

Improving the Northeast Corridor

  • Separating Amtrak’s business accounts – Reforms Amtrak by requiring the separation of business line accounts, facilitating greater re-investment in Amtrak infrastructure, including the Northeast Corridor.
  • Greater role for states – Gives states greater say in infrastructure planning and improvements on the Northeast Corridor and with state-supported routes.
  • Private sector investment opportunities – Includes provisions from Sen. Booker’s Railroad Infrastructure Financing Improvement Act (S. 797) to make the Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing program faster and more flexible. With changes from Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill), the bill would better leverage private sector investment, including through public-private partnerships, while simultaneously protecting taxpayer interests. The reforms have the potential to accelerate major projects such as new Hudson River tunnels or improving rail service and stations in and around Chicago and other areas served by rail. In addition, S. 1626 solicits private sector proposals to enhance economic development of rail stations and increase commercial opportunities for railroad right-of-way.

Sharing the rails with freight

  • Crude-by-rail – Strengthens crude-by-rail safety standards by requiring thermal blankets under tank car jackets to reduce the risk of rupture in a collision or derailment, closing a potential loophole in DOT regulations. The reforms also improve emergency response by requiring real-time information on the locations and contents of trains carrying hazardous materials.
  • Study and Testing of ECP Brake Technology – While installation of new electronically-controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes moves forward, the bill requires real-world testing by the National Academies and a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study on pilot program testing. The provision requires DOT to consider the results of this testing and study.

Click here for text of the bill as introduced by Sens. Booker and Wicker.

Click below for amendments adopted by the committee:

Blumenthal amendment 4

Daines amendment 1

Klobuchar amendment 1

Peters amendment 1

Thune amendment 1 with Blumenthal second-degree amendment 1, and Manchin second-degree amendment 2.

capitolMembers of the Senate Commerce Committee yesterday voted to approve the markup of a bill that would extend the deadline for affected rail companies to implement positive-train-control (PTC) technology until Dec. 31, 2020, instead of the current deadline that would require implementation by the end of this year.

In addition to the five-year extension, the legislation introduced by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) would give the U.S. Secretary of Transportation the discretion to grant one-year extensions after the proposed 2020 deadline, as long as those extensions expire by Dec. 31, 2022.

Read the complete story at UrgentComm.com.

The Senate committee that deals with transportation issues approved a bill to beef up the panel of federal regulators that is supposed to oversee operations on the nation’s freight and passenger railways.

The measure, which was approved unanimously on Wednesday by the Senate Commerce Committee, emboldens the Department of Transportation’s Surface Transportation Board (STB) to be more proactive in its oversight of freight rail companies that operate on tracks in the U.S.

Read the complete story at The Hill.

SMART Transportation Division National Legislative Director James Stem appeared before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation June 19 at a hearing to explore improvements in freight and passenger rail safety.

Stem testified on a variety of issues including fatigue, positive train control, the shipment hazardous materials, new technologies and worker training.

Stem told the committee that any discussion concerning rail safety should start with employee fatigue as the first order of business.

“Our railroad corporations are re-investing more than $20 billion annually in upgrading, maintaining and expanding their infrastructure, but are unwilling to invest anything in resolving the most pressing of safety issues – unpredictable work schedules coupled with employee availability policies,” Stem said.

“The Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2008 contained provisions for two pilot projects sponsored by the Federal Railroad Administration for improving work schedules and employee notification. We have urged all the Class I railroads to participate in a pilot project, but not a single railroad would agree to a pilot.”

Stem offered the following suggestions to address the issue:

•Providing employees a regular start time so they know days in advance when they must come to work. A large majority of our members have a regular start time and do not consider fatigue to be a safety issue. Employees with regular start times are not the employees who are dying in fatigue-related collisions.

•Notifying employees before going off-duty what time they will be required to return to work for the next tour of duty. This option actually improves the availability of the employee by allowing the employee to return to service after only 10 hours off duty.

•Replacing the required 10 hours of undisturbed rest immediately following service that is now required with 10 hours of undisturbed rest immediately preceding service. This will give the employee at least 10 hours of notification prior to reporting for service.

“The high level of professionalism and dedication of the operating crews running our railroads today are the only reasons that accidents are not more frequent,” Stem said.

On positive train control, Stem testified that there are segments of the railroad industry that are hoping Congress will grant a blanket extension of three to five years for PTC implementation. The current required date for implementation is more than 30 months away on December 31, 2015.

“If Congress chooses to grant a blanket extension for PTC, the railroads that are behind on their implementation schedule today will further slow their progress, or just stop the process until that new extension expires,” he said.

“Any extension for PTC implementation should be on an individual basis, short in duration, six to 12 months, and only after identifying the reasons that the current implementation date is not obtainable.

“The PTC systems that are being implemented today contain all the information on thedisplay screen that is necessary to operate a train safely. This will be the first time that the operating crews on the locomotive will have all that information contained in one place and displayed in real time. The quality of that information on the screen will significantly reduce the complexity of safely operating the train.”

Some railroads, including Amtrak, BNSF and Metrolink in California have announced that they will be able to meet the statutory deadline and are continuing the implementation and testing of PTC components.

?On Amtrak, Stem testified about the need for continued funding of the passenger rail carrier.

“Since its inception, Amtrak has done a remarkable job with often inadequate resources. While setting ridership records in recent years, their safety record remains solid. Amtrak’s growing passenger volumes has made them far more self-sufficient than in the past, recovering 79 percent of their operating costs from ticket revenue. The high price of fuel, growing highway and airport congestion, and the significant increase in the number of passenger rail options, all contribute to the constant increases in ridership on Amtrak.

“Even with their remarkable progress, Amtrak has had no shortage of congressional critics who expect Amtrak to be the world’s only profitable passenger railroad. We ask that this committee take a fresh look at this American success story and work with the leaders of Amtrak and others to help ‘America’s Railroad’ build on its 40 plus years of success. Amtrak was created because the demand for rail passenger services remained strong, and the private railroads could not make a profit operating their own passenger trains.”

Addressing worker training, Stem said that thousands of new employees will be coming into the freight and passenger rail industies in the near future and that adequate and appropriate training is a major safety concern.

“Our experience is that the training of our members varies widely from railroad to railroad. Some of the larger railroads are reported to have excellent initial training programs for conductors and engineers. However, they rely almost exclusively on computer-based training for follow-up training or what I call ‘training on your own.’ They no longer use the traditional model of mentoring or apprenticeship, where a new employee has the advantage of working with more mature employees with experience, skills, and good technique.

“Forty years ago, there were five members of a train crew and they spent years working as brakemen before becoming conductors, and likewise, years as a fireman before becoming an engineer. Today, the standard crew size is two. Now railroads hire people off the street and train them to be conductors in several short months. We are concerned about the long-term impact of insufficient training processes that create employees that lack the confidence in their abilities to stop a train movement when they suspect something is wrong.

“It’s expensive to train new people, so like some American companies, railroads, when left to their own desires, will reduce training costs as much as possible for the short term gains involved.”

Also testifying before the committee were Federal Railroad Administrator Joe Szabo, National Transportation Safety Board Chairperson Deborah Hersman and Association of American Railroads President Edward Hamberger.

To read Stem’s complete written testimony, click here.

stem_senate_061913 SMART Transportation Division National Legislative Director James Stem
testifies before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation
June 19, 2013.

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats and Republicans have finalized appointments to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Most transportation legislation moving through the Senate affecting air, bus and rail safety and economic regulation is under the initial jurisdiction of the Commerce Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.).

Most transit legislation is the responsibility of the Senate Banking Committee.

Democrats

Jay Rockefeller (W. Va.), chairman
Mark Begich (Alaska)
Barbara Boxer (Calif.)
Maria Cantwell (Wash.)
Daniel Inoye (Hawaii)

John Kerry (Mass.)
Amy Klobucher (Minn.)
Frank Lautenberg (N.J.)
Claire McCaskill (Mo.)
Bill Nelson (Fla.)

Mark Pryor (Ark.)
Tom Udall (N.M.)
Mark Warner (Va.)

Republicans:

Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), ranking
Kelly Ayotte (N.H.)
Roy Blunt (Mo.)
Jim DeMint (S.C.)
John Ensign (Nev.)

Johnny Isakson (Ga.)
Marko Rubio (Fla.)
Olympia Snowe (Maine)
John Thune (S.D.)
Patrick Toomey (Pa.)
Roger Wicker (Miss.)

To view Senate and other House committee assignments of importance to UTU members, click on the following link:

www.utu.org/worksite/washington/congress_2011.cfm