November 18, 2020

Chairs DeFazio, Lipinski Statements from Hearing on “Examining the Surface Transportation Board’s Role in Ensuring a Robust Passenger Rail System”

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Chair of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) during today’s hearing titled: “Examining the Surface Transportation Board’s Role in Ensuring a Robust Passenger Rail System.” A recording of today’s hearing can be found here.

Chair DeFazio:

Thank you, Chairman Lipinski and Ranking Member Crawford, for calling today’s hearing on the Surface Transportation Board’s role in ensuring a robust passenger rail system. Also, today is Chairman Lipinski’s last hearing as chairman of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials—thank you for your dedication and service.

I want to first recognize that this is a challenging time for Amtrak and commuter rail systems. Ridership on intercity and commuter rail has been decimated by the pandemic. And efforts to forestall the continued rise in infections, hospitalizations, and deaths have been needlessly politicized and rendered ineffective. Ridership levels are going to stay depressed for some time. Unfortunately, this puts additional burden on already depleted state and city budgets. The House has repeatedly taken the initiative to pass a comprehensive COVID relief bill that includes substantial relief for Amtrak and commuter rail systems. Hopefully the Senate will come to its senses soon.

Passenger rail is an important piece of the climate change puzzle. Rail’s benefits extend far beyond the passengers who take it. By serving as an alternative to driving and flying, Amtrak and commuter systems help to take cars off our congested roadways and reduce short haul flights. This reduces travel times and helps keep the air clear of noxious pollutants. If we are serious about stopping climate change, we must give travelers more attractive and cleaner options, such as reliable and timely passenger rail.
In my state of Oregon, residents rely on the Oregon Cascades state-supported route, the Coast Starlight Amtrak long-distance route, and TriMet’s commuter train. Each service plays an important part in the transportation network, and I want them all to continue to thrive and provide more sustainable travel options.
One thing you need in order to expand rail service and attract riders is for the trains to run on time. This has been a challenge in Oregon—in 2019, service on the southbound Cascades state-supported route had a 58.3 % on time performance rate. That is totally unacceptable, and it is not the way to grow passenger rail service.

Unfortunately, freight delays are a significant source of Amtrak delays systemwide. Most Amtrak trains outside of the Northeast Corridor run on tracks owned by the freight railroads. The freights are legally required to give preference to Amtrak when dispatching trains—this preference was part of the grand bargain when Congress created Amtrak and relieved the freight railroads of their common carrier obligations to transport passengers. But for many years, there have been questions about whether the freight railroads are holding up their end of the deal by giving preference to Amtrak trains.

In fact, Congress included provisions to fix Amtrak on-time performance way back in 2008. That is when PRIIA added provisions directing the Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak to work to develop “on-time performance” metrics and standards to be used as the basis for a Surface Transportation Board investigation. Unfortunately, these benefits have not been realized. It’s been 12 years since PRIIA was passed, and FRA’s metrics and standards for on-time performance were just published on Monday. After the long and unacceptable delay, I look forward to the STB overseeing improvement to Amtrak’s on-time performance—both in my district and nationwide.

I also want to weigh in on the disputes between Amtrak and commuter railroads. Both Amtrak and commuter railroads require the same scarce access to tracks and platforms in major urban areas. Maintaining and expanding this infrastructure is expensive, but no commuter railroad makes money, and Amtrak only makes money along the NEC. Neither can subsidize the other. In this pandemic, both are bleeding money and slashing service. My message to commuter railroads and Amtrak is: You will have more success if you unite and work together to resolve the massive challenges you face.

I look forward to hearing from our witnesses today about how they plan to cooperate to address these big challenges.

[To view Chair DeFazio’s remarks as delivered, click here]

Chair Lipinski:

Good morning. I want to welcome everyone to the final hearing of the Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee for the 116th Congress. During a very tough two years, I am very proud of the work that this Subcommittee has done along with Chairman DeFazio. The House passed an historic surface transportation reauthorization bill that includes a robust $60 billion investment for rail infrastructure, the highest amount ever. As a strong proponent of passenger rail, I’m proud that we were able to include very significant Amtrak investment and to include a top priority of mine in making commuter railroads eligible for a greatly expanded CRISI grant program. That program, which can fund a wide variety of projects including quiet zones, grade separations, and station improvements, was expanded to $7 billion over 5 years. Another priority of mine that will improve safety and reduce delays was the establishment of a dedicated grade crossing separation program. I am optimistic that in a Biden Administration and under the leadership of Chairman DeFazio this bill will get done. As far as other work under this subcommittee for the rest of the year, I remain very hopeful that we can complete a pipeline safety reauthorization bill and have that signed into law.

In our hearing today we will be looking at the Surface Transportation Board’s role in ensuring we have a robust national passenger rail system, both intercity and commuter. The STB was last reauthorized 5 years ago and that authorization expired October 1st, so this is a good time to be talking about these issues. I’m also hopeful that the STB will get its full five confirmed board members, which was authorized in the 2015 bill. I’m not just a big supporter of passenger rail, I’m a frequent passenger both on Metra commuter rail at home and on Amtrak. To achieve a more robust passenger rail system, both intercity and commuter, we need to do a few things. First, we should significantly increase the amount of public investment in rail infrastructure. Second, we will have to expand our domestic rail supply industry so we can meet the demand. Finally, we will need to establish a more balanced and efficient process to utilize existing trackage, much of which is owned by freight railroads, for expanded passenger rail service. Trying to expand passenger rail service on new right of way is just not feasible from a cost or time perspective in the majority of the country. In the places it is, we should have public investment while also encouraging private investment. But where this is not feasible, the expansion on current rail lines does not need to be contentious. Investments by the public sector to establish or expand passenger rail service can also help freight railroads by increasing freight capacity when not used by passenger rail service. This model in particular has been used to great success by the BNSF railroad.

The Surface Transportation Board (STB) is a critical part of this future, which is why I wanted to have a hearing focused on the STB’s role in helping achieve a better and more expansive passenger rail system. Congress in recent years has expanded the STB’s jurisdiction on intercity passenger rail but more is needed.

With respect to intercity passenger rail, the STB has the responsibility of adjudicating any disputes when Amtrak or another railroad wants to initiate new rail service on an existing rail line. In northern Illinois, there has been long-standing interest to start new rail service between Chicago and the Quad Cities. A significant amount of federal and state funds have been allocated to this project, but it has been caught in continuing delays due to a lack of cooperation. We should look more at what could be done in situations such as this.

Beginning in 2008, STB was assigned the task of enforcing the Federal Railroad Administration’s on time intercity rail performance metrics. The recent publication of the on-time performance rule by the FRA makes the STB’s role in solving Amtrak-freight disputes even more critical. Though it’s mentioned in the written testimony, Amtrak may want to add more about the agency’s desire for the STB to have additional authority and expertise to solve Amtrak-freight disputes in a timely and cost effective manner just like the STB has done to better resolve shipper disputes.

Unlike Amtrak, Metra and other commuter railroads do not have a statutory federal preference prioritizing commuter trains over freight trains. Additionally, commuter railroads generally do not have standing to bring cases before the STB. Therefore, commuter railroads have very limited leverage when it comes to trying to expand their service on freight rail lines or ensuring that freight railroads do not delay commuter trains. This is oftentimes not a problem, as I have been involved in helping Metra work with a number of railroads to successfully expand and improve service on their lines. An excellent example is when I worked with Norfolk Southern to create opportunities to start weekend service through my district for the SouthWest Service line. So I would like to take note that freight railroads, NS in this case, can be collaborative partners to help improve commuter service.

But sometimes there are issues. For these occasions, I believe that Congress should establish a dispute resolution process between commuter railroads and freight railroads at the STB. If this is not enough to help give commuters the type of service they deserve, perhaps Congress should take a balanced look at other options that can help improve service for commuters. With all of these challenges, there must be a better, yet still balanced, way that can achieve desirable outcomes for public AND private stakeholders.

I look forward to hearing from all of our witnesses today on the role of the Surface Transportation Board in helping achieve a better passenger rail system. I would like to welcome two witnesses in particular today. One is Metra’s new Chairwoman, Romayne Brown. Chairwoman Brown made history this year as the first African-American woman to chair Metra. She brings a lifetime of experience in public transit in Chicagoland to the position. Second, we have Marty Oberman, current vice-chair of STB, who I have known for 45 years. I believe this is the first non-confirmation Congressional hearing he has testified at. So a warm welcome to both of you and all our witnesses.

With that, I yield to Ranking Member Crawford for an opening statement.

[To view Chair Lipinski’s remarks as delivered, click here]