Posts Tagged ‘Senate Commerce Committee’

SW Chief to Remain Intact for FY2019

October 5, 2018

The proposed 500-mile bus bridge for Amtrak’s Southwest Chief is on hold for at least another year.

During a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee this week Amtrak said it would continue to operate the Chicago-Los Angeles train as it is now through the end of fiscal year 2019, which began on Oct. 1.

Amtrak’s chief operating officer, Scot Naparstek, was noncommittal, though, when prodded by senators representing the states along the route who are seeking to get Amtrak to release $3 million it earlier pledged to use to rebuild tracks used by the train.

Colfax County, New Mexico, earlier won a $16 million federal TIGER grant for the track rebuilding.

“At this point we’re committed to work with the stakeholders and try to reach a conclusion,” Naparstek said.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) said in news release that it is imperative for Amtrak to improve the route of the Chief.

“I reiterate the need for Amtrak to work with the communities impacted to create a real plan for the future of the Southwest Chief,” he said in a statement.

Amtrak has proposed replacing the train with bus service between Albuquerque and Dodge City, Kansas, saying the route lacks a positive train control system.

There would have still been rail service between Chicago and Dodge City, and between Los Angeles and Albuquerque.

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Senate Committee Hears from Amtrak Board Nominee

July 30, 2018

A nominee for a seat on the Amtrak board of directors was described as a lifelong “train freak” during a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee.

The label was placed on Rick A. Dearborn by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, who chaired most of the two-hour hearing.

During the hearing, Dearborn said Amtrak needs to make its long-distance trains more attractive but did not say that he supports government funding of them.

“Amtrak trains should be on time, clean, competitive, and a good option for travelers,” Dearborn said. “Long distance service is a critical part of the national passenger rail system. I am committed to it.”

“I get the impression that Amtrak is being reduced, not built, because it’s requiring taxpayer dollars,” U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, told Dearborn. “Do you think taxpayer dollars are necessary to keep Amtrak going?”

“I can’t predict whether or not Amtrak could operate without financial assistance,” Dearborn said. “I would hope that if we focus on creating a good product, then revenues will rise and the dependency on federal dollars would be less.”

“If you had a choice between lowering operating losses and shutting down a long-distance line, what would you choose?” asked U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nevada.

“I hope I’m never faced with that decision,” Dearborn replied.

Dearborn also zeroed in on safety, saying it must be the passenger carrier’s highest priority.

Dearborn expressed optimism that Amtrak will meet the Dec. 31 deadline set by federal law to install positive train control.

In his opening statement Dearborn said he has a collection of O Scale models that includes 75 locomotives and 300 pieces of rolling stock.

He has worked for six senators since the mid-1970s, including 12 years as chief of staff for former Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama

Dearborn was executive director of President Donald Trump’s transition team and White House deputy chief of staff until he resigned in March.

Also speaking to the committee was Martin J. Oberman, former chairman of Chicago’s Metra rail system, who has been nominated for a seat on the U.S. Surface Transportation Board.

He said he was studying such issues facing the STB as the long-standing struggle between carriers and shippers over “captive switching,” and the board’s work on streamlining rate disputes.

“My four years at Metra required my total immersion and continuous education in the railroad industry,” Oberman said. “I quickly learned that all aspects of our national rail system are fundamentally interconnected and the rail system is central to the national economy.”

Oberman pledged to take a “fresh look” at those and other issues. “Honoring precedent and not changing systems that aren’t broken are important values,” he said. “It also critical to be willing to question practices if they appear to be archaic and ineffective in meeting the changing needs of consumers and businesses, or keeping pace with technological changes in the global economy.”

Oberman said he favors negotiation over litigation as a means to resolve issues within the railroad industry.

“As a trial lawyer for 49 years, I know litigation is the worst way to settle a dispute,” Oberman said.

Senators Support Amtrak Long-Distance Trains

May 17, 2018

Some senators went to bat this week for Amtrak’s long-distance trains during a hearing on the nomination of Joe Gruters to the carrier’s board of directors.

During the hearing before the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi ) invited Gruters to join him on a trip aboard the City of New Orleans between McComb, Mississippi, and Memphis, Tennessee, so he could see the number of people who depend on the train.”

Gruters said he would “welcome the opportunity to ride a train with you for a couple hours.”

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas), and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colorado) used the hearings to express their concerns that Amtrak will seek to discontinue the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

They criticized Amtrak’s decision to withhold a $3 million match from a recently-approved $16 million TIGER grant won by Colfax County, New Mexico, that is to be used to repair the tracks used by the Chief in Northern New Mexico.

“In my view, Amtrak has reneged on what it committed to do … and I believe federal agencies have an obligation to behave with integrity; I don’t see that at the moment,” Moran said.

He read excerpts from an email written by former Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman that charged that Amtrak is seeking to end the train and submitted the entire email for the record.

“This suggests to me that there may be a change of attitude and approach at the Amtrak board and its senior leadership that would be contrary to the congressional mandate about national rail passenger service,” Moran said.

Gardner asked Gruther if, as an Amtrak board member, he would make sure Amtrak followed through on its commitments while accusing Amtrak of not doing so.

He based those accusations on a letter of support for the TIGER grant that Amtrak submitted in October 2017.

Gardner also submitted a Rail Passengers Association statement pointing out that the Southwest Chief’s ridership is up 14 percent from eight years ago.

Wicker also joined ranking minority committee member Bill Nelson (D-Florida) in expressing their desire to see Amtrak return to the Gulf Coast.

Gruters, who owns a public accounting firm in Sarasota, Florida, acknowledged having heard from officials and residents of many Florida communities in support of such service.

[Amtrak board members] “have a fiduciary responsibility to the company but we have our mission set forth by Congress, so I will look forward to working with your team to make sure agreements are upheld and we do the right thing at the end of the day.” Gruters said.

Moran also was critical of Amtrak’s decision to close its ticket office in Topeka, Kansas.

“You cannot reduce service and expect customers to arrive at your doors, and Amtrak is demonstrating that in my view in both instances,” he said.

Some senators, including Maria Cantwell, (D-Washington), used the hearing to trumpet support for positive train control.

Gruters said PTC “is the baseline standard we need to work up to.”

All but one member of the current Amtrak board lacks railroad experience. Member Jeffrey Moreland led the public affairs and legal departments at BNSF.

Like most Amtrak board members, Gruters is a political appointee who helped lead the presidential election campaign for Donald Trump in 2016.

STB Nominees Seek to be Neutral at Hearing

April 12, 2018

The two nominees for seats on the U.S. Surface Transportation Board appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee this week and sought to deflect pointed questions they were asked about STB policies.

Patrick J. Fuchs, a former Commerce Committee staff member, and Michelle A. Schultz, deputy general counsel for the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, are Republicans who recently were nominated to STB seats by the Trump administration .

Among the questions was one by Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) about Amtrak’s statutory right of preference over freight traffic.

“The law says Amtrak has preference over freight transportation using a rail line. You talked about statutory directives. Do you agree [preference] is a statutory directive?” Wicker asked. “In reality freight railroads have consistently denied such preference to Amtrak.”

Noting that a federal appellate court has struck down one effort to regulate on-time performance, Fuchs said, “Reasonable terms and conditions are case-specific, dependent on a particular route. “I would be hesitant to make a sweeping statement. I would evaluate any case that came before the board from a fair and open perspective.”

Both nominees in their prepared statements and in answers to questions sought to paint themselves as neutral and impartial.

“I believe both in the importance of the board’s responsibilities and in the power of market forces to achieve efficiencies and drive innovation and investment,” Fuchs said in his statement.

For her part, Shultz said that “because freight rail and intercity passenger rail serve an integral role in enhancing mobility within the United States, it is incumbent upon the Board to approach matters . . . in an impartial manner within the bounds of its jurisdiction and the law.”