May 11, 2023

Ranking Members Larsen, Payne, Jr. Statements from Hearing on Freight Rail Supply Chain Challenges


Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Ranking Member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Rick Larsen (D-WA) and Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Donald M. Payne, Jr. (D-NJ), during today’s hearing, titled, “Getting Back on Track: Exploring Rail Supply Chain Resilience and Challenges.”

Video of Larsen’s and Payne, Jr.’s opening statements can be found here and here.

More information on the hearing can be found here.


Ranking Member Larsen:

Thank you, Chairman Nehls and Ranking Member Payne, for holding this hearing. 

Today we will hear from witnesses about how to improve rail service.

It has been more than three months since the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, Ohio—which occurred on February 3—and this Committee has yet to hold a hearing to examine what happened.

While the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine focused the nation’s attention on rail safety, it was not an isolated or rare incident. Since that derailment: a Norfolk Southern train conductor was killed in a rail accident in Cleveland, Ohio; the town of Raymond, Minnesota had to be evacuated due to the derailment of a BNSF train carrying highly flammable material; and a BNSF derailment on the Swinomish Reservation in Skagit County spilled 3,500 gallons of diesel fuel near Padilla Bay in my district.

Chairman Graves and Chairman Nehls, I urge you to hold a hearing on rail safety and to schedule consideration of rail safety legislation. Just yesterday, the Senate Commerce Committee acted on bipartisan rail safety legislation, and this Committee should do the same.

I commend the Department of Transportation for using its authority to issue interim safety advisories, as I urged in a letter led by Ranking Member Payne and signed by 70 of our House colleagues. But we can and must do more.

Over 400 local elected officials from all across the country sent a letter to our Committee in March asking for action on rail safety.

Specifically, we need to focus on long trains and the impacts they have on our communities. I have heard from leaders of more than 12 communities in Washington, including Mayor Nehring of Marysville, Mayor Boudreau of Mt. Vernon, and Deputy Mayor May of Blaine in my district, about how first responders have difficulty reaching individuals in need of emergency care due to long trains blocking crossings.

The trends in rail safety and rail service go hand in hand–while safety has been in the forefront lately, employees and shippers have complained of fewer resources and poor rail service for many years.

The Surface Transportation Board took the extraordinary step of requiring service recovery plans from the four largest Class I railroads—Union Pacific, BNSF, CSX and Norfolk Southern to address chronic problems last year, and just extended the requirement last week. The agriculture and energy sectors have been particularly hard hit with irregular rail service.

This is impacting communities across the country and our overall economy. Yesterday the STB held a hearing to determine if a Tribal company in New Mexico should receive an emergency rail service order to ensure it is able to deliver their product to their customers. 

After years of letting rail workers go, including doubling down on furloughs during the pandemic, Class I railroads relied on “congestion embargoes” to compensate for having gutted their own workforce. The railroads issued over 1,000 congestion embargoes last year alone, and every one of the large railroads continue to use this practice except Canadian Pacific.

We can’t expect more freight to move by rail in more places—which I support as part of a cleaner, greener surface transportation network—if railroads continue with congestion embargoes, which effectively tell customers to temporarily stop shipping by rail.

I urge the railroads to focus on their customers, the communities they pass through, and their employees. The long-term health and resiliency of the supply chain and economy depends on a stable and functioning freight rail system. As we’ve seen over and over, a stable and functioning freight rail system depends on its hardworking railroaders. Class I railroad performance on both safety and service in recent years has shown business as usual is not working. 

A stark example of the dysfunction occurred last year when after years of cutting its workforce to the bone, the Class I railroads were unable to negotiate contracts with their own workers and Congress had to step in to keep freight rail service running.

Class I railroads have to hire and retain more workers, return locomotives and rail yards to service, and increase training for workers, especially the new and inexperienced ones, so they can provide more and safer service across the country.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is providing historic investments in our nation’s infrastructure and much of the material to build that infrastructure—roads, bridges, airports, transit systems, and rail systems—will be transported by rail.

The need for rail service will continue to grow as Bipartisan Infrastructure Law dollars flow to states, cities, and counties over the next four years.

I look forward to hearing from the witnesses today on their suggestions to shore up our supply chain and improve rail service to move America forward.


Ranking Member Payne, Jr.:

Thank you, Chairman Nehls for calling today’s hearing. I’m glad that we have an opportunity to examine freight rail service and learn what can be improved. 

Of course, we can’t neglect the importance of the freight rail workforce to the safe and reliable operation of these railroads. For the last decade, freight rail workers have been asked to do more with less.

Since 2015 the freight rail workforce has been cut by a third.

Despite record profits, it has only been in the last year that the Class I railroads have been willing to bargain with their workforce for paid sick leave.

This morning, I introduced the Freight Rail Workforce Health & Safety Act to guarantee seven paid sick days for all freight railroad workers. Sick leave is a right.

We Members have paid sick leave.

Our staff has paid sick leave.

Executives at these railroads have paid sick leave.

Freight rail workers deserve paid sick leave as well.

As the workforce shrunk, trains grew in length, with some trains today reaching up to three miles long.

These trains are too long to fit into rail yards and sidings, so they block crossings and stop people from getting to school and work.

More worrisome, these trains can stop first responders from getting to people who need them.

Mr. Chairman, I would like to ask unanimous consent to add this December 2022 article from the Kansas City Star into the record.

It shows the human toll of blocked crossings.

A grandfather, Mr. Gene Byrd, died while the crossing to his neighborhood was knowingly blocked by a BNSF train and emergency responders could not get to his house in Noble, Oklahoma.

In the Houston suburbs, a tiny baby died for the same reason. His mom was a nurse and she performed CPR for 52 minutes while a Union Pacific train blocked the entrance to her neighborhood.

I’m pleased that our Senate counterparts advanced bipartisan rail safety legislation yesterday, which addresses both blocked crossings and long trains.

This bill is so bipartisan both Senator Schumer and former President Trump support it. 

I’m hopeful we can move similar legislation here in the House, and I look forward to working with my Republican colleagues on this.

We need to improve rail safety and rail service.

Last summer’s rail meltdown made clear that this industry needs resiliency.

In response to service disruptions, I introduced the Freight Rail Shipping Fair Market Act which puts shippers and the railroads on a level playing field.

It requires freight rail contracts to contain service delivery standards, while allowing the railroads and customers to determine what those standards should be.

It clarifies that common carrier service should mean efficient, timely, and reliable rail service.

It allows rail car owners to charge fees if railroads are slow to pick up or return their cars–the same way railroads can charge these fees to their customers.

These ideas are supported by rail customers and rail labor.

They will improve service for rail customers and for all of us who depend on freight railroads to bring food to market and keep our country running.

I look forward to hearing from our witnesses today about rail service and how the rail workforce is handling these recent challenges, and I yield back the balance of my time.