Senate Commerce Panel Approves Passenger Rail Bill

June 25, 2015

In a mark-up session on June 25th, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee has approved S. 1626, a bipartisan bill on railroad reform sponsored by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), as modified by some amendments. The bill would authorize appropriations for Amtrak over the next four years, as well as provisions for increasing the safety regulation for oil tank cars by requiring thermal blankets, and installing inward- and outward-facing cameras on passenger rail cars. The text of the bill as introduced last week is here.

Chairman John Thune (R-SD) highlighted the key reforms of S. 1626, particularly dedicated safety title grade crossing safety, thermal blankets, and inward facing cameras. In a remark before quorum was reached, Chairman Thune commended Sens. Wicker and Booker “for their leadership in crafting a truly bipartisan passenger rail bill The Railroad Reform Enhancement and Efficiency Act, increases safety, improves existing infrastructure, and includes sorely need reforms posed by several committee members.” He also pointed at the importance of the dedicated safety title in the bill, “which includes critical measures in addressing issues from grade-crossing safety to speed limit enforcement.”

The amendments adopted en bloc are summarized at the end of this article.

Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-FL) spoke on behalf of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who was unable to attend the session, to offer a provision repealing DOT’s new electronically-controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes requirement. Sen. Manchin wanted the provision offered and withdrawn, and will take it out when the legislation reaches the floor.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) expressed his appreciation for the committee on accommodating his amendments and looking forward to working on confidential close call reporting and its “disclosure and transparency” for “effective deterrence against the kind of safety problems we’ve encountered on many of the railroads.”

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) offered and withdrew his amendment to create a Southwest Chief working group to look at proposing solutions for maintaining the Southwest Chief passenger rail line, which is at risk of being shut down if Amtrak does not receive sufficient funding. He addressed comments by an Amtrak representative regarding the challenges of PTC implementation from the June 10th hearing (as a refresher, the hearing was covered in the ETW issue from the week of June 8th). As an update to the hearing, Sen. Gardner said that “over the past several months, the states of Colorado, New Mexico, and Kansas have all agreed to put in millions of dollars of funding toward the line, the Southwest Chief itself.” Although he withdrew the amendment, he assured “the people of Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico who are benefitting from the Southwest Chief, a commitment from the chairman of the committee that we continue to work on a solution for this line.” Chairman Thune expressed that he is looking forward “to working with the senator from Colorado, coming up with that solution, and appreciate[s] his strong advocacy.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) commented on the importance of oil spill plans emergency response plans, especially to deliver adequate information to first responders in emergency situations, and that “getting a real safety plan is critical.” She looks forward to continuing to move forward and working with Chairman Thune on other improvements to rail safety. (Although S. 1626 mostly focuses on passenger rail, Sen. Cantwell has been especially active in efforts to regulate oil tank cars following a spate of collisions this year, including one in her state of Washington, such as proposing legislation in March for increased safety regulations alongside Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)).

Text of amendments adopted today can be found here by scrolling to the bottom of the page. A summary of all the amendments adopted at this morning’s markup is below. Amendments can be compared to the bill text as introduced (linked at the beginning of this article) and to the section-by-section summary of the bill as introduced prepared by ETW staff which is found elsewhere in this issue.

En bloc amendments to S. 1626

  • Thune amendment #1 as modified by Blumenthal second-degree #1 and Manchin second-degree #2
    • Adds a new subtitle C to Rail Safety, “Hazardous Materials by Rail.”
    • Adds a new section 431 “Real-Time Emergency Response Information,” addressing Class I railroads transporting hazardous materials, requiring them to have information about such materials and provide this information to emergency response officials and law enforcement.
    • Adds a new section 432 “Thermal Blankets,” requiring regulations for tank cars to meet DOT-117 specification and for non-jacketed tank cars to be equipped by a thermal blanket.
    • Adds a new section 433 “Comprehensive Oil Spill Response Plans”, requiring railroad carriers transporting Class 3 flammable liquids to have a comprehensive oil spill response plan, which would need to be accepted by the Secretary.
    • Adds new section 434 “Hazardous Materials by Rail Liability Study”, which directs the Secretary to start a study on the levels and structure of insurance for a railroad transporting hazardous materials, and look at what levels and structure would be necessary and appropriate. A final report would be submitted to Congress.
    • Adds a new section 435 “Study and Testing of Electronically-Controlled Pneumatic Brakes”, which directs the GAO to evaluate ECP brake systems pilot program data and the DOT’s research and analysis of these brake systems. The Secretary will also work with the NCRRP Board and rail experts to complete testing of ECP brake systems, resulting in a report to Congress.
    • Adds a new section 436 “Recording Devices”, amends Subchapter II of chapter 201 of title 49 U.S.C to add §20168 “Installation of audio and image recording devices,” which requires each rail carrier and Class 1 freight railroads to install inward- and outward-facing image recording devices in all controlling locomotive cabs and cab car operating compartments for passenger rail. Recorded data must be preserved for one year after a reportable incident or accident.
    • Adds a new section 437 “Rail Passenger Transportation Liability”, which amends section 28103(a) by increasing allowable awards to all rail passengers for all claims, from $200 million to $295 million (which will be adjusted every 10 years reflecting the Consumer Price Index-All Urban Consumers). The Federal Government has no financial responsibility for paying these claims.
    • Adds new section 438 “Modification reporting,” which directs the Secretary to implement a reporting requirement to monitor industry-wide progress towards modifying tank cars used in high-hazard flammable train service, to collect tank car data and data on their modifications
  • Blumenthal #4 as modified, which amends section 403(b)(2) of the bill regarding rail carrier’s speed action plan, adding increasing crew size and improving signage among aspects to consider; directing the Secretary to submit a report to Congress focusing on what railroad carriers are responding to safety measures and actions that the FRA has taken to ensure compliance. Amends section 408(c) of the bill, so that the Secretary must submit a Congressional report 18 months after the bill is enacted, which explains when safety regulation revision was not necessary on high density commuter railroad lines. Amends section 406 to require on-track safety regulations, rather than where the Secretary considers necessary. Adds a new section, to be placed where appropriate, “Operation deep dive; report,” directing the Administrator of the FRA to submit a Congressional report describing how Metro-North Commuter Railroad is progressing in implementing the FRA’s directives and recommendations from the March 2014 report
  • Daines #1, amending sec. 201 of the bill by striking subsection(a) “Requirements and procedures” and inserting “Report on development options,” which directs Amtrak to submit a report to Congress that looks at options for enhancing economic development, improving stations, generating additional investment capital, increasing ridership and revenues, complying with ADA, strengthening multimodal connections, and options for additional Amtrak stops
  • Klobuchar #1, amends section 401(a)(2) of the bill on “Highway-rail grade crossing safety,” expanding the scope of researching to include evaluating idle trains blocking highway-rail grade crossing and best practices to alleviate blockage due to idling trains
  • Peters #1, adds a new section (to be placed where appropriate) “Post-accident assessment,” which directs the Secretary, alongside the NTSB and Amtrak, to conduct a post-accident assessment of Philadelphia derailment on May 2015, and would be submitted to Congress

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