Senate approves Obama rail nominee

Senate approves Obama rail nominee
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President Obama's choice to lead the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) was approved on Wednesday by the Senate. 

Obama's nomination of Sarah Feinberg, who has been leading the FRA on an interim basis since January, was approved by the full Senate in a voice vote. 

The approval clears the way for Feinberg to take full control of the agency after nearly a year at the helm that has multiple passenger and freight railway accidents. 


Feinberg was seen as unconventional choice to lead the FRA when she was tapped to replace the agency's former chief Joseph Szabo, who was career railroader that retired from government service at the end of 2014. 

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.  

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

"Over the past nine months, I believe she has proven herself to be an effective and engaged leader with the courage to make tough decisions and the character to except criticism," Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinWhy Biden's Interior Department isn't shutting down oil and gas Overnight Energy: Senate panel advances controversial public lands nominee | Nevada Democrat introduces bill requiring feds to develop fire management plan | NJ requiring public water systems to replace lead pipes in 10 years Transit funding, broadband holding up infrastructure deal MORE (D-W. Va.) said. 

"She was baptized by fire after being appointing to this position on Jan. 9 of this year, leading the agency's response to six major incidents in her first 60 days," Manchin continued. 

Feinberg has won plaudits for her communication with the public and members of Congress since she took over the FRA, and she has been out front on a number of railway accidents, including a deadly Amtrak crash in Philadelphia in May. 

Lawmakers in the Senate had 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 Wednesday.  

"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. Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman 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.) 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

Democrats in the Senate backed Feinberg's nomination on Wednesday, but they also pressed her to take a hard line on railway safety improvements at the FRA's full-time chief. 

"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," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a statement ahead of Wednesday's vote.