Rail nominee clears Senate committee

Rail nominee clears Senate committee
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President Obama's choice to lead the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has been approved by the Senate committee that handles transportation issues. 

Obama's nomination of Sarah Feinberg, who has been leading the FRA since January, for a full-time term atop the rail agency was approved by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Tuesday in a 19-1 vote. 

Lawmakers on the panel said Feinberg deserves a shot at the full-time FRA chief position after handling multiple accidents since she became interim rail administrator earlier this year. 


"Sarah Feinberg has brought a fresh perspective and renewed vigor to safety issues since taking over the Federal Railroad Administration in an acting capacity," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who has been a vocal critic of railroad safety lapses, said in a statement about Feinberg's successful committee vote. 

"I urge the full Senate to follow the Commerce committee’s lead and confirm Ms. Feinberg to a permanent post so we can continue the long, arduous process of reforming and overhauling this beleaguered — but absolutely critical — agency," Blumenthal continued. "With dozens of outstanding safety recommendations and Congressional mandates still languishing, the need for real leadership is clear." 

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.  

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.

Lawmakers on the Senate transportation committee pressed Feinberg on her lack of prior experience in the rail industry and her insistence on enforcing a December deadline for automating trains during a confirmation hearing in September that proceeded the vote in her favor on Tuesday.  

"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," Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneFrustration builds as infrastructure talks drag On The Money: Senate braces for nasty debt ceiling fight | Democrats pushing for changes to bipartisan deal | Housing prices hit new high in June Transit funding, broadband holding up infrastructure deal MORE (R-S.D.), who is chairman of the Senate transportation committee, said at the start of a September hearing on Feinberg's nomination. 

"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 defended her lack of rail experience prior to her appointment to lead the FRA temporarily during her earlier confirmation hearing, 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

Blumenthal pressed Feinberg to take a hard line on railway safety improvements if she is confirmed by the full Senate, which is widely expected after the successful committee vote. 

"It is imperative that Ms. Feinberg end the FRA’s old, stale way of doing business, crossing its fingers that railroads comply with the law, and instead adopt a new approach that relies on strong, aggressive enforcement practices, regardless of whether the industry likes it," he said.