FRA chief set for confirmation hearing amid automated train fight

FRA chief set for confirmation hearing amid automated train fight

President Obama's choice to run the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) will face lawmakers in the Senate for a confirmation hearing on Thursday amid an intensifying fight over automating trains on the nation's railways. 

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee a hearing on Obama's appointment of Sarah Feinberg, who has been leading the FRA since January, to the full-time position atop the rail agency.  

Feinberg, who is a former White House staffer and Facebook employee, has won plaudits for her leadership of the FRA during a tenure that included two high-profile Amtrak accidents in North Carolina and Philadelphia. 

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Her confirmation hearings comes a day after an announcement that two-thirds of the nation's major railroads are years behind schedule installing an automated train navigation system known as Positive Train Control (PTC), however, despite an existing Dec. 31 mandate.   

Lawmakers have promised to press Feinberg about the likelihood that most railroads will miss the deadline during Thursday's confirmation hearing. 

“Many of the railroads who will not meet the deadline are now threatening to stop service and shut down the economy if the deadline isn’t pushed back—an intolerable and unacceptable position that should not be rewarded," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a statement.  

"I intend to focus intensely on this issue at tomorrow’s hearing with the nominee to run the Federal Railroad Administration," he continued. "I’m eager to ensure we find a solution to this issue – but economic disruption and open-ended extensions aren’t the answer.”

Feinberg was seen as a non-traditional choice when she was tapped to take over the railroad administration from Joseph Szabo, who was a career railroader who resigned from the agency in 2014. 

Prior to assuming the role of FRA chief, Feinberg served as Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx's chief of staff, in addition to her earlier roles at the White House and Facebook.

Feinberg has won praise from lawmakers - including Republicans who are normally critical of the transportation department under President Obama's leadership - during her time as acting FRA chief. 

"You have continued to come before this committee," Rep. Jeff DenhamJeffrey (Jeff) John DenhamEx-GOP Rep. Denham heads to lobbying firm Crazy California an outlier? No, we are the canary in the coal mine Polling editor says news outlets should be more cautious calling elections MORE (R-Calif.) said as he was introducing Feinberg during a June committee hearing. 

"There have obviously been a number of big issues that this committee is addressing and you have not wavered as far as coming before and answering some very difficult questions," Denham continued then. 

Feinberg is facing lawmakers now at a time when debate over the automated train deadline has reached a fever pitched. 

Several lawmakers have pushed to delay the PTC mandate, over the objection of safety advocates who argue that railroads have years meet the deadline and cite a deadly Philadelphia Amtrak crash in May that killed multiple passengers as a reason the requests for extensions should be denied. 

“Passenger and freight railroads need time beyond the current deadline to finish implementation of a complex system that relies on new technology,” said Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneTrump angry more Republicans haven't defended his tweets: report White House abruptly cancels Trump meeting with GOP leaders McConnell says Trump is not a racist, but calls for better rhetoric MORE (R-S.D.), who is chairman of the Senate committee that will consider Feinberg's nomination on Thursday. 

“Failure to extend this legal deadline would create significant hardships for customers and passengers who rely on railroads. Passing an extension that includes meaningful accountability for PTC implementation is the best thing Congress can do to enhance safety and avert a chaotic situation that would hurt our economy much more than the recent West Coast ports backup,” Thune continued. 

Feinberg has promised to keep enforcing the automated train deadline until Congress tells her not to. 

"I take my cues form the Congress and I enforce what the Congress mandates," she during the June hearing when she was asked if she would negotiate extensions of the PTC deadline with individual rail companies.

"So if the Congress instructs us to enter negotiations like that we would do that," Feinberg continued, cautioning at another point "the deadline is the deadline. 

"If we..communicate to railroads if you don't like the deadline that we have why don't you come up with a plan that involves a new deadline for yourself that would actually, in my opinion, be extending the deadline," Feinberg warned lawmakers in the June hearing. 

FRA officials defended Feinberg's handling of the automated train deadline ahead of Thursday's hearing after the release of the report showing most railroads will miss the deadline. 

“Many items GAO recommend are already in progress and have been since the beginning of 2015," FRA spokesman Matthew Lehner said in a statement that was provided to The Hill. 

"Early this year, FRA added more staff, created an internal PTC task force to collect additional, specific data from railroads and initiated more frequent communication with railroads," Lehner continued. "FRA will continue its efforts that go above and beyond its statutory requirements to assist railroads to implement Positive Train Control as quickly and efficiently as possible.”