Thune: Rail Passengers Deserve Critical Safety and Infrastructure Improvements Put Forward in DRIVE Act

July 29, 2015

U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, spoke on the Senate floor earlier today regarding the provisions in the underlying transportation reauthorization bill that focus on needed reforms to Amtrak and commuter railroads across the country.

These bipartisan provisions will help to ensure adoption of critical safety and infrastructure improvements that impact millions of Americans across the country.  

Sen. Thune delivered his speech during continued debate on the DRIVE Act, a bipartisan bill designed to improve the nation’s surface transportation infrastructure and allow America to better compete in the 21st century. The bill includes several Commerce Committee titles that cover key transportation and regulatory reforms. A summary of the Commerce Committee titles may be found here.  

The full text of Sen. Thune’s floor speech follows:  

Mr. President, thanks to the leadership of Sens. Wicker and Booker, and the bipartisan contributions of the members of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, the legislation before the Senate today includes critically important provisions from the bipartisan “Railroad Reform, Enhancement, and Efficiency Act” our Committee passed by voice vote last month.  

This bill re-authorizes Amtrak through fiscal year 2019 while increasing rail safety, improving infrastructure, cutting red tape, and empowering local officials.

Following the tragic May 12th derailment of Amtrak 188 in Philadelphia that resulted in eight fatalities, Senators Wicker and Booker added additional rail safety provisions, which were approved by the Committee.  
The bipartisan rail bill that passed in Committee and is included in the multi-year transportation bill before the Senate would also advance the deployment of Positive Train Control technology for averting accidents.

I am proud to note that we recently amended the multi-year transportation legislation to expand this authorization.  

Never before has the Senate authorized robust, dedicated, and mandatory funding for Positive Train Control implementation.

The amendment, accepted by the Senate earlier today, would authorize $199 million in PTC grants and loan financing for commuter railroads in Fiscal Year 2016.  This is the highest single year authorization for PTC ever.

Using the Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing program, commuter railroads would be able to leverage this funding for $2 billion in loans necessary to cover their PTC capital needs.

In addition to advancing deployment of PTC, the Wicker-Booker bill would:

•    Require speed limit action plans for all passenger railroads to address automatic train control modifications, crew communication practices, and other measures to prevent over-speed derailments while Positive Train Control is being implemented;
•    Require grade crossing action plans to improve state grade crossing safety efforts; and

•    Consolidate grant programs to focus resources on critical safety and infrastructure needs. Building on the work of the Commerce Committee’s Ranking Member, Sen. Nelson, the bill would increase the rail passenger liability cap for inflation, from the $200 million level set in 1997 to $295 million, with inflation adjustments every 5 years.

The bill applies the new, higher cap retroactively to the date of the Amtrak accident in Philadelphia, thereby raising potential compensation available to victims and their families.

The legislation also includes a measure from Sen. Peters to require a thorough examination of Amtrak’s post-accident response following the Philadelphia derailment, ensuring a close look at whether Amtrak addressed the needs of families and passengers involved in the tragedy.  

Sen. Peters’ work will make meaningful improvements to Amtrak’s emergency preparedness going forward.

As we worked on the legislation before Committee adoption, I included a requirement for all passenger railroads in the nation to install inward- and outward-facing cameras on their locomotives. This fulfills an outstanding recommendation of the National Transportation Safety Board.  

These cameras will not only help with accident investigations – a need we saw following the Philadelphia derailment – but will help monitor each passenger railroad’s compliance with critical safety requirements.

Last week I received a letter from NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart stating, “I applaud the recent passage of the passenger rail safety bill.  I was pleased to see the inclusion of recommendations regarding inward and outward facing audio and image recorders. Thank you for your support of the NTSB.”

The bill also includes extensive contributions from Sen. Blumenthal to improve passenger rail safety, including redundant signal protection to increase roadway worker safety, potentially preventing tragedies like the one in West Haven, Connecticut in 2013.  

Sen. Blumenthal also made important contributions on provisions covering alerters, signage, and track inspections. And, the bill includes his proposal for the Federal Railroad Administration to increase oversight of needed safety improvements at Metro-North.

Mr. President, I’d like to put in the record the following documents:

•    The Federal Railroad Administration’s “Operation Deep Dive Report” outlining the safety concerns at Metro-North and setting forth specific directed actions.  This bill before the Senate would require FRA to follow-up on that report and its recommendations.

•    Emergency Order 29, which was issued after terrible derailments in the Bronx; Bridgeport, Connecticut; and West Haven, Connecticut.  This bill would apply the Emergency Order’s speed limit action plan framework to the entire passenger rail network, reducing the risk of future over-speed derailments.

•    A statement from Sen. Blumenthal following the news that 13 current and former Metro-North employees had been accused of cheating on licensing exams.  The statement reads, “my amendment was accepted into the bill, which was voted out of the Committee favorably, and I urge the Senate to take up the measure swiftly so we can ensure Metro-North is implementing true safety reforms.”

I echo Sen. Blumenthal’s statement and urge the Senate to ensure Metro-North and other railroads improve safety by voting in support of the bill before the Senate.

Working with Sen. Cantwell, who has been a strong advocate for crude-by-rail safety, we’ve also included in the bill new requirements for real-time train information to aid emergency response officials in the event of an accident.  

And Sen. Baldwin worked last week to ensure emergency officials have advance notice of crude oil and ethanol unit trains traveling through their jurisdictions.

The bill also includes a provision for comprehensive oil spill response plans to ensure railroads are prepared and have resources positioned to respond to worst-case scenarios—another priority for my colleague from Washington State, Sen. Cantwell.

Further aiding emergency response efforts, Sens. Booker and Menendez included provisions that prohibit the withholding of train information from first responders.  Their work will also examine the sufficiency of response information carried by train crews, addressing issues raised in relation to the 2012 derailment in Paulsburo, New Jersey.

Sen. Manchin worked to ensure tank car owners and shippers annually report on their compliance with the new tank car requirements, creating stronger oversight for these important safety upgrades.

In addition, Sen. Manchin and I have agreed on the need for a real-world derailment test of Electronically-Controlled Pneumatic or “ECP” brakes.

As this testing moves forward, the existing Department of Transportation requirement will be kept in place unless the real-world testing and evaluation show the requirement is not justified.
Enhancing the bill’s grade crossing safety provisions, Sen. Gardner added stronger oversight of the Federal Railroad Administration’s actions pertaining to the use of locomotive horns at highway-rail grade crossings.  

And Sen. Klobuchar included timely provisions to help address issues with the blocking of crossings as a result of idling trains.

The bill also incorporates the work of Sen. Roy Blunt, whose TRAIN Act, co-sponsored by Sens. Machin, Heller, and myself, will streamline the permitting process for rail improvements, making our critical infrastructure dollars go further.  

Sen. Daines included provisions to improve Amtrak’s operations through the study of new station development options where Amtrak would turn a profit, potentially increasing private sector investment in our nation’s passenger rail system.

The reforms extend to project financing, and Sen. Booker’s embedded “RRIF” reform bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Heller, Carper, and Kirk, will create a faster and more flexible RRIF program.  

I also applaud Sen. Kirk for his contributions to the RRIF reform bill, improving the loan process and facilitating more timely and transparent decisions.  These RRIF loans can be used for safety improvements, including Positive Train Control.

It also explains why its inclusion in the broader surface transportation bill is strongly supported by Transportation for America, the States for Passenger Rail Coalition, the National Association of Railroad Passengers, the American Public Transportation Association, and the Southern Rail Commission.  

I ask unanimous consent to include these statements in the record.

Transportation for America wrote that the Committee-reported legislation “would be an important step forward in creating a transportation program that will boost the nation’s economy and ensure future prosperity.”

It also stated that the bill would improve the safety of our nation’s rail system.

The States for Passenger Rail Coalition stated that the bill “will empower state departments of transportation to maximize their resources and make efficient and effective mobility investments.” It said the Coalition “applauds the Committee’s work to enhance safety programs.”

The National Association of Railroad Passengers said the bill will be a positive step needed to “build the modern rail system American workers and businesses will need to compete in a 21st Century global economy.”

I also ask unanimous consent to submit a support letter from over 100 other local, state, and national leaders, including mayors from cities such as Alexandria, Virginia; Cleveland, Ohio; and La Junta, Colorado.

Building on the work of the Commerce Committee, the multi-year transportation bill also includes a bipartisan extension to the PTC deadline.  The bipartisan extension is a rigorous and demanding case-by-case approach, with enforceable milestones and metrics.  

The Secretary of Transportation approves or disapproves the dates in a railroad’s updated implementation schedule, including the hard end date for implementation.

Under no circumstances could the Secretary approve a date for full installation and activation that is later than 2018.  The Secretary also has the authority to identify and require changes to deficient schedules that do not show safe and successful implementation as soon as practicable.

Multiple government reports, including from the Government Accountability Office, the DOT, and the FRA, have concluded that the vast majority of railroads will not meet the December 31, 2015 deadline for PTC implementation.  

This extension will not delay safe and successful implementation of Positive Train Control technology. Rather, it offers a realistic approach to ensure this important technology is implemented as quickly as possible without risking shutdowns of rail service that will not meet the current deadline no matter what the law says.

This proposal is not novel. S. 1006, with original co-sponsors Blumenthal, Schumer, and Gillibrand would extend the deadline to the end of 2018 on a case-by-case basis in one-year increments. 

Despite good faith efforts from railroads, the Blumenthal extension recognizes the deadline is simply not attainable.

Similarly, in its GROW AMERICA proposal, the Administration requested giving the Secretary of Transportation discretion to extend the deadline on a case-by-case basis, without any constraints on the dates that the Secretary may approve.  

We follow this model but add explicit constraints on installation and activation by 2018, while allowing the Secretary discretion in overseeing testing to ensure PTC works as intended.

Recently, railroads from across the country explained the potential disruption caused by the current unattainable deadline:

•    Virginia Railway Express, or VRE, wrote to me stating that its commuter rail operations could be suspended after December 31, 2015. It has requested more time to ensure PTC works as intended.  I ask unanimous consent to submit this letter into the public record.

•    BNSF Railway, one of the freight railroads that have collectively spent over $5 billion in private funds on implementation, recently sent a letter to the Surface Transportation Board that stated the possibility, “if Congress has not extended the deadline for PTC operations, as of January 1, 2016, neither passenger nor freight traffic would operate on BNSF lines that are required by Federal law and regulation to have an interoperable PTC system as of that date.” 

I ask unanimous consent to submit this letter into the public record.

Critically, as I’ve noted, this extension is now paired with robust, dedicated, and mandatory funding for PTC implementation among commuter railroads.

Recently, the American Public Transportation Association, or “APTA,” surveyed its commuter railroad members, and found 50 percent were deferring maintenance to install PTC, and only 29 percent had a shot at installation by the end of the year.

That’s why APTA, the National Association of Railroad Passengers, and rail labor support the inclusion of the critical funding in the underlying measure. I ask unanimous consent to submit these letters into the record.

APTA wrote, “these funds are of critical importance as commuter railroads address the $3.5 billion in costs associated with installing PTC systems.”

The National Association of Railroad Passengers wrote, “just as important as the level of the authorization is the structure of the eligibility…RRIF could potentially be used to leverage the amount provided by the DRIVE Act by a factor of ten.”

The Senate has an important opportunity to advance deployment of Positive Train Control and help commuter railroads get over the finish line.

In sum, this is a national rail safety and infrastructure improvement bill:

•    Amtrak provides service to over 30 million riders per year, with stops in over 500 communities and in 46 states.

•    New York has about 6 million riders, Pennsylvania about 3 million, and states such as Florida, Virginia, and Washington all have over 1 million too.

This bill also improves the safety of commuter railroads, which collectively have nearly 500 million boardings per year.  Metro-North, serving New York and Connecticut, Long Island Railroad, and New Jersey Transit each have over 80 million boardings per year.

These passengers deserve the critical safety and infrastructure improvements put forward in this bipartisan legislation.

The failure to pass this bipartisan DRIVE Act – which includes these passenger rail investments and safety improvements – would be a significant loss for the traveling public who utilize passenger rail systems across the country.