U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, will convene a hearing titled, “Amtrak: Next Steps for Passenger Rail,” at 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday, June 26, 2019. The hearing will examine implementation of the rail title of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, which expires at the end of fiscal year 2020, and priorities for reauthorization of Amtrak.
- The Honorable Jennifer Homendy, Member, National Transportation Safety Board
- Mr. Richard Anderson, President and Chief Executive Officer, Amtrak Board of Directors
- Mr. Ian Jefferies, President, Association of American Railroads
- Mr. James Souby, Commissioner, Southwest Chief & Front Range Passenger Rail Commission and President, Colorado Rail Passenger Association (ColoRail)
*Witness list subject to change
Wednesday, June 26, 2019
Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation
This hearing will take place in the Hart Senate Office Building 216. Witness testimony, opening statements, and a live video of the hearing will be available on www.commerce.senate.gov.
Chairman Roger Wicker
I continue to be a strong supporter of our rail industry—both freight and passenger. Rail service is safe and efficient. It also reduces congestion on our highways and spurs economic growth.
In Mississippi, for example, we have 26 freight railroads, 2,400 miles of track, five of the seven Class Ones, two long-distance Amtrak Routes, 10 stations, and more than 100,000 annual riders. Rail is vital to Mississippi.
I have been a tireless advocate for the restoration of the Gulf Coast Passenger Service, which was suspended in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina.
With funding support from DOT, Amtrak, and the states, I am pleased to report that Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama are likely once again to have this Amtrak route and that will give Mississippi a third Amtrak route.
Restoration of this service would support growing population centers, connect tourist destinations, bring new jobs, and improve the region’s quality of life. This will make a positive difference for the communities and people of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
This hearing provides an opportunity to examine the state of passenger rail and consider how to support existing routes like the Southwest Chief and restore Gulf Coast service.
In 2015, I introduced -- along with Senator Booker -- the Railroad Reform, Enhancement, and Efficiency Act, which reauthorized Amtrak. When the bill’s provisions were included in the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, or FAST Act, it authorized funding levels for Amtrak, created new rail grant programs, made improvements to existing rail financing programs, and changed Amtrak oversight and planning activities. The FAST Act and those rail provisions expire at the end of FY 2020. It is important for us to examine what aspects of this important legislation have worked and what should be improved.
This hearing is an opportunity for witnesses to discuss the impact of Amtrak reauthorization in the FAST Act and how Congress can support rail service in the next reauthorization bill.
In the FAST Act, I also led the creation of the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements grant program, known as CRISI. This program provides grants to improve the rail network. CRISI strengthens intercity passenger rail, supports capital projects, and boosts rail safety initiatives.
Among the most important safety initiatives for rail is the deployment of Positive Train Control (PTC), which is designed to prevent tragic accidents such as the Amtrak derailment in the state of Washington. Timely implementation of PTC is also important that the committee will be holding a full committee hearing on this in the near future. In addition, earlier this week the NTSB issued its report on that particular accident.
I hope our witnesses will discuss ways to support further capacity, enhance safety, and other improvements for passenger and freight rail service in the next Amtrak reauthorization.
One area that still needs improvement is on-time performance of passenger rail. For Amtrak to be successful, its trains must be able to run on time. With only 43.8 percent of long-distance trains arriving at stations on schedule, Amtrak’s on-time performance lags behind comparable transit networks.
I hope our witnesses will provide suggestions to improve Amtrak’s on-time performance while maintaining the overall fluidity of the nation’s rail network.
I look forward to a robust discussion of passenger and freight rail service and again thank our witnesses for testifying this morning.
I will now recognize my friend and the Ranking Member, Senator Cantwell.
Ranking Member Maria Cantwell
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you for scheduling this important hearing on Amtrak, and the witnesses for being here today. I certainly consider myself a big supporter of Amtrak funding and Amtrak reauthorization, and also consider myself a big supporter of the chairman’s initiative to make sure that that expansion, or rework, of Amtrak’s Sunset Limited service to the Gulf Coast is reestablished. I know how important this is to the state of Washington in having Amtrak services and I hope that we can continue to make Amtrak a priority within this committee.
I want to thank the witnesses for being here today and to talk about Amtrak services in an era where we see an increasing pace of global commerce. More trains than ever before in my state. Our trade economy relies on these methods of transportation to our ports, which the chairman is also a big supporter, and appreciate his many years of leadership on port infrastructure financing.
These issues are what plague us every day in the state of Washington. We have communities that have Amtrak services and yet we also have freight congestion and at-grade crossings that make our challenges even more complex. One example of this is Pine Roads in Spokane Valley – 56 freight and 2 passenger trains pass through there, creating 3 hours of rail-related closures daily. That means that the challenge of moving people and moving freight in our region, as we are a gateway to the Pacific, is becoming more and more challenging. Three hours every day when traffic is interrupted, three hours every day when accidents between cars and trains are more likely, and three hours a day when emergency vehicles are blocked from getting where they need to go.
And this is a problem that is only going to get more challenging as our trade economy continues to grow. In 2014, 121 million tons of freight were shipped by Washington railroads. By 2035, that number is expected to double. So at intersections like Pine Roads, train traffic will increase. Right now 56 trains pass through Pine Roads every day, but by 2035 that will grow to 114.
So this issue of making sure that we have strong federal support for Amtrak, and also funding for freight rail infrastructure, which is instrumental in making sure passenger and freight run very safely, more efficiently, and reliable, is a big priority. We need to build on the proven federal rail initiatives, like CRISI, which just provide a grant to improve the Pine Street intersection, but we also need to make sure that in the next Surface Transportation Act, we consider other ways in which we can help communities with at-grade crossings.
And safety must remain a top priority. The need for safety was driven home by the 2017 Amtrak crash near DuPont in the state of Washington. I am concerned that we need to continue to make sure that we are having situational awareness in the challenges that come with participating in a busy transportation corridor. I know that everybody is now trying to figure out how to get these people, and products and services, to places in a timely fashion, but we need to make safety a top priority.
Obviously positive train control, which we know is being implemented, is a key component of that, and as we consider the number of freight trains coming through and the impacts on the daily lives, we need to make sure that we’ve learned the lessons from the DuPont accident and everything that comes with it.
So I hope my colleagues will continue to push the implementation of positive train control throughout the United States. I know where we are in the state of Washington, which is getting that job done, but we need to make sure that we’re doing this on a national basis as well.
So thank you, Mr. Chairman, for this important hearing.
Witness Panel 1
The Honorable Jennifer HomendyMemberNational Transportation Safety Board
Mr. Richard Anderson
Mr. Ian JefferiesPresidentAssociation of American Railroads
Mr. James SoubyCommissioner, Southwest Chief & Front Range Passenger Rail Commission and PresidentColorado Rail Passenger Association (ColoRail)