Lawmakers Press Railroad Nominee on Safety Deadline

Repost from the New York Times

Lawmakers Press Railroad Nominee on Safety Deadline

By Ron Nixon, Sept. 17, 2015

An Amtrak train traveling from Penn Station in New York to Penn Station in Newark in August. There is a Dec. 31 deadline for railroads to start using positive train control technology, which increases safety. Credit Fred R. Conrad for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s nominee to lead the Federal Railroad Administration faced tough questioning by lawmakers on Thursday about the rail industry’s contention that it cannot meet a year-end deadline to install a safety technology meant to keep trains from derailing.

Sarah Feinberg, 37, who was nominated by Mr. Obama in May, has been acting administrator of the agency for about nine months. During that time, there have been several train crashes attributed to excessive speeds, including in May, when an Amtrak passenger train derailed in Philadelphia, killing eight people and injuring 200.

Under questioning by a Senate panel weighing her confirmation, Ms. Feinberg said the railroad administration would enforce the 2008 law that set Dec. 31 of this year as the deadline to have railroads install the technology, known as positive train control.

“On Jan. 1, we will enforce the deadline and the law,” Ms. Feinberg said. She said the agency would work with the rail companies to help them with technical and financial challenges they face in trying to install the safety technology. But she emphasized, “We do not have the authority to extend the deadline.” That authority belongs to Congress.

The deadline to install positive train control, which dominated the questions at the hearing, has become a contentious issue. Some members of Congress have proposed pushing back the deadline. A Senate bill passed in July would extend it to 2018. But many safety advocates say the industry has known of the deadline for years and should be able to install the technology on time.

A report on Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found that no railroad would be able to fully install the technology by the end of the year. The investigators recommended that Congress extend the deadline. Many railroad operators say they will refuse to carry crude oil or hazardous chemicals after Jan. 1 if Congress does not do so.

At the hearing, Ms. Feinberg received tough questioning from Democrats and Republicans, who asked if the agency had contingency plans if the railroad industry did not meet the deadline.

“If you know that they aren’t going to be in compliance at the end of the year, what are you going to do?” asked Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri.

Senator Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi, said he and other panel members were frustrated by the “lack of a specific proposal concerning an extension.”

Ms. Feinberg was introduced at the hearing by Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, whom she has known since she was a child. Mr. Manchin called Ms. Feinberg “uniquely qualified to lead the agency.”

Ms. Feinberg, a former Facebook executive and White House adviser, has dealt with several high-profile rail accidents during her tenure at the railroad administration. In addition to the Amtrak wreck, a train derailment in Oxnard, Calif., killed the engineer and injured about 30 people, and an oil train derailment in West Virginia caused the evacuation of about 100 people from their homes.

During her tenure, higher domestic oil production has caused a significant increase in the amount of crude oil traveling by rail, setting off concerns about the safety of those shipments through cities and towns.

Before she became acting administrator, Ms. Feinberg’s most relevant transportation experience was the nearly 18 months she spent as chief of staff to Anthony Foxx, the transportation secretary. Mr. Foxx, whose department oversees the railroad agency, has said that Ms. Feinberg has his full confidence.

Railroad administrators without transportation experience are not unprecedented. Recent examples include Gilbert E. Carmichael, who led the agency from 1989 to 1993 and was active in Mississippi Republican politics before he became administrator. Likewise, John H. Riley, who led the Federal Railroad Administration from 1983 to 1989, worked as a Senate aide before being appointed to lead the agency by President Ronald Reagan.

During her time as acting administrator, Ms. Feinberg has issued a crude-by-rail rule that imposes significant new safety requirements and has started a partnership with Google to integrate the railroad administration’s grade crossing data into its mapping software, allowing users to receive audio and visual alerts about railroad crossings.

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