February 05, 2020

Chairs DeFazio, Lipinski Statements from Hearing on Grade Crossing Safety

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: “Tracking Toward Zero: Improving Grade Crossing Safety and Addressing Community Concerns.”

Chair DeFazio:

Thank you, Chairman Lipinski and Ranking Member Crawford, for calling today’s hearing to look at issues surrounding grade crossing safety.

The last time this Committee held a hearing to examine grade crossing issues was 15 years ago. A lot has changed since then. We all now have cell phones, which is the number one contributor to distracted driving. We rely on apps like Google Maps and Waze to find shortcuts to help us get to our destinations faster. The Class I railroads have implemented Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR), which includes operating longer trains, closing yards, and demanding signalmen cover more and more territory in order to cut labor expenses. All these changes have an impact on safety at public grade crossings. 

States and localities have tried to address some of the grade crossing issues they face but have a hard time keeping up—often with little financial support from the Federal Government or railroads. While the railroads advocate for closing more grade crossings, these projects often aren’t realistic solutions in densely populated communities that have been built around rail lines.

Grade crossing separation projects can increase capacity and free-flowing movement for both trains and vehicles, while reducing vehicle-train conflict and increasing safety. However, we’ll hear from witnesses today just how expensive these projects can be. With only $245 million available nationwide this year for projects through the Section 130 Railway-Highway Grade Crossing Program, many states struggle to cover the costs of multi-million dollar projects. As a result, we plan to provide more funding opportunities for these larger grade crossing safety projects through rail safety grants in the Rail Title of the Surface Reauthorization bill.

Another issue compounding the problems at grade crossings is the growing length of freight trains. Though railroads don’t make train length publicly available, two Class I railroads provided information to the Government Accountability Office that showed train length has increased by 25% in just the last 10 years. I am very concerned by this trend and suspect that train length will continue to grow with the Class I railroads’ implementation of Precision Scheduled Railroading. 

While increasing train lengths to over 3 miles long might provide a cost-savings to the railroads, it has major impacts on the communities these trains traverse, sometimes bisecting entire communities and bringing traffic to a halt for hours or even days! And without sidings long enough to hold such long trains, trains idle on tracks while waiting to enter a yard, sometimes blocking crossings and creating traffic jams. 

We have heard from numerous state and local officials that long trains and trains stopped on crossings have prolonged response times for emergency responders and forced them to find alternative routes.

Thirty-five states and Washington, D.C. have laws in place allowing them to issue a civil fine to a railroad when it blocks a crossing for an extended amount of time. But in the last decade, the railroads have challenged many of these state laws in court on the grounds that they are pre-empted by federal law. However, there are no federal regulations pertaining to trains blocking public grade crossing.

To make matters worse, FRA Administrator Ronald Batory told this Committee last June that solutions to these problems should be addressed at the local level leaving little incentive for railroads to take community concerns seriously. States continue to try to address persistent blocked crossings by working with railroad representatives, but problems persist, and I continue to hear complaints from constituents.

Today’s panel includes witnesses with varied first-hand experiences in dealing with grade crossings issues. I look forward to hearing their suggestions on improving grade crossing safety, reducing blocked crossings, and how best to engage railroads, local communities, and the Federal Government in being cooperative partners on grade crossing issues.

Chair Lipinski:

Good morning.  Today’s hearing is part of this Subcommittee’s continued work on the surface transportation reauthorization.  With the recent rollout of House Democrats’ infrastructure principles which include a robust $55 billion investment for rail infrastructure, today’s discussion around how to address grade crossing safety and associated community concerns is a timely one.  Addressing the issues we will hear about today is one of my top priorities for the rail portion of the FAST Act reauthorization, particularly providing more funding for grade separations, quiet zones, and other infrastructure that improves safety and quality of life.  

I grew up 100 yards from railroad tracks, so I know first-hand about the impact of living near a railroad.  Chicagoland is the rail hub of North America and my congressional district has the most grade crossings of any in the country so my constituents experience the issues we will hear about today on a regular basis.  Some of those issues include blocked crossings, train horn noise, idling trains, deaths and injuries at grade crossings and along rail right of ways, and railroad property upkeep.

I am pleased that we have Alderman Matt O’Shea from Chicago’s 19th Ward here today to talk about the problems faced by his constituents.  The launch in December of FRA’s blocked grade crossing reporting system is a step in the right direction.  But let me be clear. The notion that the way a community experiencing blocked grade crossings should try to solve the problem is to fill out a report and submit it to FRA or call the railroad and hope the railroad will unblock the crossing is not a solution.  More and stronger tools are needed and I look forward to hearing from Alderman O’Shea, Mr. Vercruysse, and others on options they recommend Congress look at.

Another issue I want to touch upon is grade crossing separations.  I was pleased last year to work with my colleagues in the state of Illinois to secure funding for a critical grade separation at 63rd and/or 65th and Harlem in Chicago.  The CREATE rail modernization program which has made significant progress in making the Chicagoland rail network much more efficient, was actually launched from that site and that grade separation is labeled “GS1” in the CREATE program project list.  While I’m pleased we now have the money to get that grade separation constructed, there are numerous other crossings I would like to see separated.  The current amount authorized for the Section 130 grade crossing program is nowhere near enough to fund one grade separation in my district, let alone the many that need to be done across the country.  I look forward to hearing from Mr. Christoffels of the Alameda Corridor East and other witnesses on how a dedicated federal program for grade separations can help speed up these vital grade separations. 

We also need to find more funding for quiet zones and streamline the process for communities to become a quiet zone.  I understand the role that sounding the train horn plays in notifying people a train is approaching and maintaining safety near a crossing.  However, there has to be a way we can institute more quiet zones in a timely manner and make improvements that provide an equivalent level of safety to train horns.  The current process to obtain a quiet zone is just too arduous.  I look forward to hearing from Karl Alexy from FRA and other panelists on ways we can do this.

Finally, over the years I have repeatedly heard from numerous communities that I represent about poorly maintained railroad property, especially unpainted bridges. Railroads are just like any property owners in the community and need to maintain their property in a way that is reflective of the care and values other residents put in the community.  It is time they do better maintaining their property.

America has a freight rail network that is the envy of the world, and that network helps make American businesses more efficient, helping to create jobs.  But there are also downsides to this expansive network.  Some of these downsides can be mitigated with appropriate action, and I look forward to hearing from our witnesses about their recommendations.  With that, I recognize Ranking Member Crawford for his opening statement.  

Chair Lipinski’s statement as delivered can be found here.