Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
May 30, 2015

Posts in "Rail"

March 20, 2015

A Bipartisan Move To Strengthen Freight Rail Regulation

SEn. John Thune, R- S.D., is moving to strengthen freight rail regulation (Photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call)

SEn. John Thune, R- S.D., is moving to strengthen freight rail regulation (Photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call)

In the 1890’s the Populists complained that freight railroads were too powerful and charged farmers too much to ship their grain to market. Complaints about railroad power are being heard anew more than 100 years later.

As Bakken oil from North Dakota is shipped by rail, shipments of other commodities from cherries to corn to iron ore are being delayed, as a Senate hearing heard last September.

Sen. John Thune, R- S.D. and Sen. Bill Nelson, D – Fla., the chairman and ranking member of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, are responding to the complaints by co-sponsoring a bill to beef up the Surface Transportation Board, the regulatory agency responsible for matters such as railroad rates, mergers, and construction of new rail lines.

Their bill would expand the board from three to five members, give it new investigatory authority, and require the board to create a database of shippers’ complaints and quarterly reports.

National Association of Chemical Distributors president Eric Byer said, “Chairman Thune has worked hard over the years to ensure a level playing field for rail shippers, which includes 40 percent of all chemical distributors. NACD thanks him for being committed to holding the railroad industry accountable….”

March 13, 2015

Heitkamp Presses OIRA To Finish Oil Train Rules

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., center, is urging OIRA to "quickly finalize" regulations on rail shipment of crude oil. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., center, is urging OIRA to “quickly finalize” regulations on rail shipment of crude oil. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

“Oh Ira, why can’t you work more quickly?” That might’ve been what tunesmith George Gershwin said to his lyric-writing brother Ira Gershwin. But for transportation purposes, it’s essentially what Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D- N.D., said Thursday to OIRA – pronounced “oh-Ira” – the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, within the Office of Management and Budget.

OIRA is where proposed regulations go for a final vetting and it now has under review a series of proposed rules on more robust oil tank cars and safer transport of crude oil.

In a letter to OMB director Shaun Donovan, Heitkamp urged OIRA to “quickly finalize” the regulations so that shippers and first responders can know what they must do to more safely ship crude oil. Much of that oil comes from the Bakken formation in Heitkamp’s state and in Montana and is carried by rail to refineries on the East Coast and the West Coast.

She cited the December 2013 derailment, explosion and fire in Casselton, N.D., noting that while no one was killed in that incident “we were lucky… but we cannot depend on luck.”

Meanwhile House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee ranking member Peter A. DeFazio, D- Ore., has asked the Government Accountability Office to report to him on what railroads and the federal government are doing to prepare for an oil train derailment and fire “particularly in the most remote and environmentally sensitive areas”

DeFazio specifically asked the GAO to examine what the railroads are doing to preposition “critical resources necessary to respond to spills in both urban and rural areas, including forest lands, with limited road access, prone to catastrophic fire, or at-risk due to long-term drought” and to preposition “critical resources to contain and clean-up oil spills into rivers or other water bodies.”

As the Oregonian reported last year, “Eighteen oil trains a week move along the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge.” Part of the gorge is a national scenic area and it borders national forests.

March 12, 2015

Canadian Government Proposes Safer Oil Tank Cars

Firefighters douse blazes after a train loaded with oil derailed in Lac-Megantic in Quebec on July 6, 2013. Forty-seven people were killed in the accident. (Photo: François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images)

Firefighters douse blazes after a train loaded with oil derailed in Lac-Megantic in Quebec on July 6, 2013. Forty-seven people were killed in the accident. (Photo: François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images)

While oil shippers, railroads, mayors, and emergency responders across the United States wait for the Obama administration to issue new rules on oil tank car safety, the Canadian government has moved to issue its own rules, which may prefigure what’s coming in the United States.

The proposed standards from Transport Canada, the Canadian regulatory agency, mandate a tank car shell thickness of 9/16th of an inch, instead of 7/16 of an inch on older tank cars now in service.

The thicker tank car shell would provide improved puncture resistance if there’s a derailment, the Canadian government said.

Canada would also require shields at the head of the tank car to protect it from puncture.

The announcement said, “Transport Canada recognizes the integrated nature of rail transport in North America” and has taken note of recommendations from industry groups “that a harmonized standard [with the United States] is essential.”

Transport Canada said it is continuing to collaborate with U.S. regulatory agencies to develop stricter requirements for tank cars in North America.

Association of American Railroads president Edward Hamberger said his group was “pleased with Transport Canada’s sensible approach of expediting the rule-making process… to help provide greater certainty in the rail car marketplace.”

Members of Congress have complained about the slowness of the Obama administration rulemaking process on oil tank car safety. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the proposed rule is now out of his department’s hands and being scrutinized by officials at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs which does a cost benefit analysis of proposed regulations.

March 9, 2015

Survival Of New D.C. Streetcar Now In Doubt

The H Street streetcar in Washington, D.C., still being tested   (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

The H Street streetcar in Washington, D.C., still being tested (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Just as Arlington County, Va., cancelled its planned streetcar line three months ago, so too may its much bigger neighbor across the Potomac River, Washington, D.C.

WAMU’s Martin Di Caro and the Washington Post’s Michael Laris have both reported on the doubts raised by the city’s new transportation chief, Leif A. Dormsjo, about whether, despite the sunk cost of as much as $200 million, a new streetcar line along H Street in northeast Washington is really worth keeping alive.

The streetcar has been doing test runs for several months, but has yet to carry any customers.

“I’m trying to prudently and responsibly prepare the service to be started. But if I can’t get to that point, I’m not going to be enchanted by some philosophy of transit that leads me to do something that doesn’t make sense,” Dormsjo told the Post.

“This project over 10 years was developed in an unprofessional, haphazard, contradictory and inconsistent manner,” he said.

Light rail and street cars have been a favored mode for Obama administration transportation planners.

Although more capital intensive than bus systems, light rail and street cars dominate the list of 53 mass transit projects funded or under consideration in the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program. Of the 53 projects, 30 of them were light rail or street car projects.

March 5, 2015

Bipartisan Move To Delay Deadline On Train Braking

Officials inspect a Metro-North train crash with a sport utility vehicle that happened on Feb. 4, 2015 in Valhalla, N.Y.  (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Officials inspect a Metro-North train crash with a sport utility vehicle that happened on Feb. 4, 2015 in Valhalla, N.Y. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Last month Edward Hamberger, the president of the Association of American Railroads, told a House panel that the freight rail industry simply could not and would not meet the end-of-year deadline set by Congress to have in place an automatic braking system called positive train control (PTC).

Accidents such as the one in Valhalla, N.Y. last month in which six commuters were killed when a train hit an SUV stopped on the tracks have given the PTC issue renewed urgency.

“We have spent over $5 billion trying to implement positive train control. We are not dragging our feet in any way,” Hamberger told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials. “We are not going to make the deadline at the end of this year, but we are committed to getting it done.”

On Wednesday the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee seemed to acknowledge that reality by proposing a bill to push the deadline back by five years.

The bill is co-sponsored by Sen. John Thune, R- S.D., Sen. Roy Blunt, R- Mo., Sen. Bill Nelson, D- Fla., and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D- Mo.,

In a statement, Hamberger thanked the senators for proposing to remove what he called “an arbitrary and infeasible statutory deadline.”

Hamberger cited the technical difficulties of making positive train control work and said the industry sees the proposed new deadline as “a reasonable and responsible extension.”

 

March 4, 2015

Cantwell Prods Foxx On Oil Tank Car Regulations

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., left ,with Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.(Photo By Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., left ,with Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.(Photo By Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

Democrats in Congress continue to voice their frustration that the Obama administration’s pending regulations on rail shipment of crude oil by rail is held up in the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, where proposed rules get a final cost-benefit assessment before being published.

“We are not moving fast enough. I look forward to seeing your rule but we are going to come out with tougher standards,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., told Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Tuesday.

She said she’d introduce legislation to require a thicker shell for tank cars that carry oil and a quicker phase-out of existing tank cars than what the administration proposed last summer.

An average of 19 oil trains now cross her state every week on their way from North Dakota to the five refineries in Washington.

When a reporter asked Foxx about the opaque OIRA review process last month, he joked about the low profile of that agency within OMB. “There are probably ten of us in the world who know what you’re talking about,” Foxx said.

March 3, 2015

House To OK First Transportation Bill Of 114th Congress

Rep. Julia Brownley, D- Calif.  (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Julia Brownley, D- Calif. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The House is getting ready to pass the first transportation legislation of the 114th Congress, the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act.  The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee OK’d it last month it by a unanimous vote.

The Congressional Budget Office says the bill would authorize $7.2 billion in spending from 2016 to 2020. The biggest piece of spending is $5.3 billion for grants to Amtrak.

Among the amendments to the bill which the House will vote on is one by Rep. Julia Brownley, D- Calif. which would require each state to develop a plan to identify ways, such as grade separations, to make grade crossings safer.

It was in Brownley’s district last month that a collision took place between a commuter train and a truck which apparently was stuck on the train tracks.

March 2, 2015

New Report From CSIS On Oil Transport

A new report on the U.S. energy transportation infrastructure from the Center for Strategic & International Studies is well worth reading, especially for its discussion of the politics and economics of moving oil by rail.

February 23, 2015

Week Ahead: Tolling, Flight Tracking, Energy Shipping

Sen. James Inhofe, R- Okla., and Rep. Bill Shuster, R- Pa., will both address the AASHTO conference this week. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. James Inhofe, R- Okla., and Rep. Bill Shuster, R- Pa., will both address the AASHTO conference this week. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

It will be a busy week in Washington for transportation policy, with hearings, speeches, and panel discussions on everything from better tracking of airline flights to tolling on interstates.

Tuesday

The Mileage Based User Fee Alliance holds its second annual conference in Washington.

The Alliance includes state departments of transportation and contractors in the tolling business. Panelists will discuss such topics as California’s Road Usage Charge Pilot Program.

Full story

February 20, 2015

Week In Review: Derailment, Delay, And Delta’s CEO

Delta CEO Richard Anderson (Photo credit Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Delta CEO Richard Anderson (Photo credit Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

This week was dominated by the derailment of an oil train near Mount Carbon, W.V. The accident, which caused explosions and fires and destroyed one house, illustrated the risks that towns and cities face as Bakken crude from North Dakota makes the journey from the oil well to the tank of your car.

Full story

Unions, Governors Make A Transportation Weekend Of It

Rep. Peter King, R- N.Y. will be conferring with transportation union leaders this weekend (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Peter King, R- N.Y. will be conferring with transportation union leaders this weekend (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Trains and buses may be on a reduced weekend schedule but transportation events run at a brisk pace Saturday and Sunday.

In Atlanta, the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO holds its annual executive committee meeting with 32 member unions in Atlanta. The unions represent workers from airline pilots to light rail operators.

Labor leaders will confer with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx Saturday, and on Sunday Reps. Peter King, R-N.Y. and Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill. will meet with the union leaders.

Full story

February 19, 2015

Devolution For Transportation A Long-Term Strategy

Rep. Lee Zeldin, R- N.Y. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Lee Zeldin, R- N.Y. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The conservative Heritage Foundation and its political arm Heritage Action want Congress to spend the money in the Highway Trust Fund on highways and not on subways, commuter trains, and other forms of mass transit.

Heritage transportation analyst Emily Goff said that current policy directs up to 20 percent of the money in the Highway Trust Fund to mass transit even though only 5 percent of commuters use mass transit. Most of the money that goes into the trust fund comes from gasoline and diesel taxes.

“How does the transit ride of someone in New York benefit someone who is a farmer in Montana who is using the roads?” she asked Wednesday at a Heritage briefing.

The think tank would like to devolve the federal transportation programs to the states. Goff said “letting the states who want to pursue transit do so” would result in better transit systems since states would design them to fit their needs and fund them themselves.

Full story

A Train Station, Or ‘An Incredible Destination’?

The lobby of the Radisson in Scranton, Pa., formerly the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad station. (Courtesy: Radisson Hotels)

The lobby of the Radisson in Scranton, Pa., formerly the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad station. (Courtesy: Radisson Hotels)

So valuable is some big city real estate that rail yards can’t be just rail yards anymore, and a train station must be far more than a place to get on a train, it must become a “destination” or better still a “a place to be seen.”

If you’re a utilitarian traveler from Washington to New York or from Washington to Philadelphia, you might be satisfied simply with “a clean, well-lighted place,” a crime-free train station with tolerably hygienic bathrooms.

Add a good coffee shop, and perhaps a place to get a glass of wine and a sandwich. And a newsstand, and maybe a book shop, like the late lamented Posman Books in New York’s Grand Central Station.

That’s enough for some travelers.

And most importantly, the train service itself should be frequent and reliable.

But if your calling in life is real estate development, those expectations are far too modest.

Full story

February 18, 2015

Derailment Complicates Regulators’ Rule-Making Task

Sen. John Thune, R- S.D., right, is one of the farm state lawmakers keenly interested in rail congestion  (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. John Thune, R- S.D., right, is one of the farm state lawmakers keenly interested in rail congestion (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Monday’s derailment in West Virginia of a CSX train carrying crude oil occurred at a politically sensitive point as the Obama administration is working on a long-awaited proposed regulation on tank cars that carry oil and ethanol.

Just two weeks ago, at a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing on the pending tank car rule, members voiced frustration about the uncertainty that the administration has created by its slowness in issuing the rule.

The derailment “is just another example of why the federal government must act,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee ranking Democrat Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon said Wednesday. “The federal government should not delay further — it must issue the new rules for safer rail tank cars as soon as possible.”

Full story

Foxx Sees Innovation Out-Running Regulation

Transportation Secretary Foxx inspects a self-driving car at the Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. on Feb. 2 (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Transportation Secretary Foxx inspects a self-driving car at the Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. on Feb. 2 (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In our interview Friday with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, he suggested that the pace of technological innovation in transportation is out-running the ability of federal regulators to devise rules governing the use of that technology.

He pointed out that rule-making by federal agencies, which entails a lengthy preparatory phase, a cost-benefit analysis by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, then a public comment period, and a round of refining of the final rule, “is designed to ensure that when rules do come out there’s been a thorough look at whether there are alternatives or whether there’s a better way to get there.”

Full story

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