The pending nominee to be the next administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) will provide testimony at a U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation confirmation hearing on Thursday, September 17th at 9:45 a.m.
Ms. Feinberg has served as the Acting Administrator of the FRA since January 2015 and the president formally nominated her to be the next administrator at FRA on May 29, 2015. Her nomination questionnaire is available here.
Nomination Under Consideration:
Sarah Feinberg, to be the Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration
Thursday, September 17, 2015
Full Committee Nomination Hearing
This hearing will take place in Senate Russell Office Building, Room 253 and a live video of the hearing will be available.
Chairman John Thune
"Today we will consider the nomination of Sarah Feinberg to be the next Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). "The FRA’s mission is to oversee the safe, reliable, and efficient movement of people and goods throughout our nation’s rail network.
"That rail network is absolutely vital to the nation’s economy, so it is important that those who directly oversee the safety and efficiency of this network have the requisite skills and experience.
"Ms. Feinberg has been serving as the acting FRA Administrator since January. Prior to her current assignment, she served as Chief of Staff to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx from 2013 to 2014.
"From 2011 to 2013, Ms. Feinberg was the Policy and Crisis Communications Director at Facebook. From 2009 to 2010, she served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Advisor to then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Before that, she served as Mr. Emanuel’s Communications Director for the House Democratic Caucus.
"While Ms. Feinberg clearly has substantial communications experience and an admirable commitment to public service, some have raised concern that her background does not include a deep expertise or experience on issues regarding railroads or railroad safety. "As noted in an April 11, 2015 article in Politico, “at this crucial moment, the nation’s top railroad safety regulator is a former Facebook executive and White House adviser whose resume is long on communications and policy posts—and notably short on railroad expertise.”
"In addition to asking Ms. Feinberg to respond to such concerns, I will also be asking Ms. Feinberg about the looming deadline for railroads to implement Positive Train Control (PTC). "As those in the rail industry are well aware, PTC is a communication system designed to prevent train collisions, overspeed derailments, and other accidents by automatically slowing or stopping a train that is not being operated safely by locomotive engineers.
"The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 mandated the implementation of PTC systems by December 31, 2015. However, complex and interrelated implementation challenges have prevented most railroads from meeting this deadline, which is rapidly approaching.
"Yesterday, the independent Government Accountability Office issued an updated report that found that freight and passenger railroads continue to face significant challenges in implementing PTC, and the vast majority of railroads would need one to five years to complete implementation.
"Even the small fraction of railroads that will be able to install PTC on their own tracks by December 31, 2015 will face testing, certification, and interoperability issues prior to full implementation.
"As profiled at many hearings convened by this Committee, PTC is not an off-the-shelf technology. The GAO attributed implementation difficulties to the development of first-generation components, the limited number of manufacturers of those components, and complex system integration and testing, among other challenges.
"Some of the implementation issues have also been government-created. The GAO pointed out that, as a result of permitting review issues, the Federal Communications Commission halted the construction of critical communication towers for a year, effectively delaying implementation. The GAO also pointed out that FRA’s review of safety plans has been slow and its oversight efforts have been insufficient.
"GAO ultimately found that railroads pushing to meet the current unrealistic deadline – installing components before defects are identified and addressed – could be counter-productive to successful implementation.
"These findings should not come as a surprise. The FRA itself issued a report in 2012 that identified several technical and programmatic issues affecting implementation, such as spectrum availability, installation and engineering challenges, and technical capacity. It has said for years that the vast majority of railroads will not meet the current deadline.
"Railroads have spent billions of dollars working through these challenges. CSX testified at a Commerce Committee hearing in January that the freight railroad industry has spent over $5 billion of private funds on PTC development and deployment, and they expect to spend at least $9 billion to make PTC fully operational nationwide.
"The reality is that, if only a few railroads could not meet the deadline, perhaps we could conclude there is an issue with those railroads. But if nearly every railroad in the country will not meet the deadline, we need to acknowledge there is an issue with the deadline. Congress has the responsibility to fix this issue.
"That is why legislative action is needed to extend the deadline and provide operating authority for railroads that have not completed PTC implementation, while still motivating compliance and enhancing safety.
"The surface transportation reauthorization bill, which passed the Senate by a vote of 65-34, includes a bipartisan proposal to extend the PTC deadline on a case-by-case basis with enforceable milestones and metrics, and sets commonsense safety requirements, such as cameras and speed limit action plans for passenger trains while PTC is being implemented.
"I believe that failing to extend the PTC deadline will result in large-scale disruptions to the nation’s economy that would make the West Coast port disruption or the 2013-2015 rail service problems that impacted a large portion of the country, look small in comparison.
"That is why I recently sent letters to the Surface Transportation Board, all seven Class I railroads, and all covered commuter railroads inquiring about the effects of failing to extend the PTC deadline. Responses to my letters indicate tremendous risk of service disruption, including the cessation of passenger rail traffic and major delays that will impact freight railroads – including the inability to ship critical chemicals such as chlorine for water treatment plants across the country and anhydrous ammonia for the fertilizer that our agriculture sector requires.
"MTA in New York, responsible for Metro-North and the Long Island Railroad, two of the three largest commuter railroads in the country that collectively provide nearly 180 million rides annually, stated: “railroads face serious potential disruptions to operations and exposure to unacceptable risks of liability and civil fines, all of which would divert railroad resources from the critical task of speeding final implementation of PTC.”
"Union Pacific – the largest freight railroad in the country – clearly stated in its response to my letter that it will embargo all passenger and toxic-by-inhalation chemical traffic starting on January 1, 2016. This includes chemicals essential for clean drinking water and healthy crops.
"In fact, the Chairman of the Surface Transportation Board stated in his response to me that railroads may not be obligated to ship such TIH chemicals after the December 31 deadline, which could redirect them to other modes that are less efficient and, importantly, less safe.
"We cannot wait until the last minute to act. I believe, absent Congressional action, we will begin to see the effects of the deadline four to six weeks prior to the December 31st deadline as railroads begin to cycle traffic off their lines. This is a looming economic and safety disaster that is completely avoidable. "So now more than ever, I believe Ms. Feinberg, as the Acting Administrator of the FRA, has a responsibility to work with us in Congress to avoid the potential service disruptions. The time for anyone to play politics with the PTC deadline is past, and we as policymakers must work together to avoid disrupting the nation’s economy.
"Having said all of this, I would like to thank Ms. Feinberg for her willingness to serve at the DOT. Despite some criticism I mentioned earlier, Ms. Feinberg has received compliments for her willingness to be transparent and responsive to Congress, which will be essential if she is confirmed.
"With that, I turn now to the distinguished ranking member for any remarks he would like to make."
I would like to thank the chairman for calling this important nominations hearing to consider Ms. Sarah Feinberg to be the next administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration.
Ms. Feinberg, congratulations on your nomination. I want to thank you for your willingness to serve the American people.
The Federal Railroad Administration oversees the safety and development of the nation’s freight and intercity passenger rail networks.
Railroads have played a critical role in developing and uniting our nation.
Each day, millions of passengers rely on our rail system to commute to and from work or travel to destinations all across the country. Amtrak alone carries more than 30 million passengers annually.
Railroads also connect thousands of communities to the global economy by bringing American goods to ports, such as the Port of Miami, where they are then exported abroad.
Today, freight railroads remain the backbone of the nation’s economy. About 40 percent of all freight in the U.S. moves by rail, more than any other mode.
For our country to remain competitive, railroads must operate safely, reliably, and efficiently.
With safety being central to FRA’s mission, I am encouraged that since 2005, train accidents have declined by 45 percent, and fatalities have declined by 16 percent.
At the same time however, we continue to witness tragic train accidents.
In December 2013, a commuter train derailed in New York, resulting in 4 fatalities and close to 70 injuries.
In January 2015, a Metro-North commuter train, also in New York, struck an SUV on its tracks, killing six and injuring many more—the deadliest accident in Metro-North’s history.
Most recently, in May, an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia, killing eight passengers and injuring more than 200.
These high profile incidents, just to name a few, are unfortunately not the only tragedy we see on the nation’s rails.
Across the country, accidents at grade crossings kill over 200 people each year.
These accidents are stark reminders that we can and must do more. I look forward to hearing how the FRA can assist in these efforts, especially with respect to implementing positive train control, enforcing DOT’s new regulations on transporting crude oil, and efforts to further reduce accidents at grade crossings.
And I also look forward to hearing your ideas about the role, going forward, that our nation’s freight and passenger rail systems can play within the broader transportation network.
Our population is growing, our highways and airports are congested, and we have to find a way to catch up with the rest of the world on developing modern, high-speed passenger rail lines.
Thank you for appearing before us today Ms. Feinberg and I look forward to your testimony.
Witness Panel 1
Sarah Feinbergto be the Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration