Senators press rail nominee on experience, automated trains

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Senators pressed President Obama’s choice to run the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) on Thursday on her lack of prior experience in the industry and her insistence on enforcing a December deadline for automating trains. 

In the spring, Obama tapped Sarah Feinberg, who has been leading the FRA since January, for a full-time term atop the rail agency, which requires Senate confirmation.

Prior to assuming the role of FRA chief, Feinberg served as Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx’s chief of staff, making her a non-traditional choice to oversee the nation’s railroad industry at a time when multiple passenger and freight-train accidents have raised questions about safety.  

{mosads}Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who is chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said he had questions about Feinberg’s experience and refusal to relent on a deadline for automated trains that most railroads have said they will miss. 

“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,” Thune said at the start of Thursday’s hearing. 

“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,” he continued. “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.”

Feinberg took over the FRA after the retirement of Joseph Szabo, a career railroader who resigned from the agency in 2014. Prior to assuming the role of FRA chief, Feinberg served in roles at the White House and Facebook.

She defended her lack of rail experience prior to her appointment to lead the FRA temporarily on Thursday, saying she has been baptized by fire through multiple accidents since taking over in January. 

“Just one month after I became acting administrator, a Metro-North train traveling out of New York City with hundreds of passengers hit a car at a grade-crossing,” she said, noting six people died in the crash. 

“Days later, in Sen. [Joe] Manchin’s and my home state of West Virginia, a mile-and-a-half long train carrying 109 tank cars loaded with crude oil derailed near the town of Montgomery,” Feinberg continued, noting one person died in the West Virginia crash and another eight passengers were killed in a deadly Amtrak crash in May

Feinberg promised to “eagerly work with all members of this committee and all members of Congress to build a stronger and safer rail system” if she is confirmed, although she told lawmakers there is little she can do to alter the December automated train deadline unless they pass an extension.  

“There are many railroads that making a good faith effort and we believe have been working diligently toward PTC implementation, but the law and the statute and the deadline is very black and white and in our read does not give flexibility to railroads that are acting diligently and railroads who are not,” she said. “We will enforce the law as of the deadline of Dec. 31, so on Jan. 1 we will enforce the deadline and the law.” 

Railroads currently have until Dec. 31 to install the Positive Train Control system, which regulates the speed and track movements of trains. Feinberg’s confirmation hearing came a day after an announcement that two-thirds of the nation’s major railroads are years behind schedule installing the automated train navigation system, prompting calls for an extension of the December deadline.  

“This is a looming economic and safety disaster that is completely avoidable,” Thune said. “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.” 

Democrats said the acting FRA chief has shown she is fit for the job of regulating the nation’s railroads, despite the fight about automating trains. 

Feinberg has “proven herself to be an effective and engaged leader with the courage to make tough decisions and the character to accept criticism that they often incite,” said Manchin, who introduced the nominee because she is a West Virginia native.

Tags Federal Railroad Administration FRA Joe Manchin John Thune Joseph Szabo Positive train control Sarah Feinberg

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