Dem and GOP Senators Seek More Long-Term Rail Vision From Obama Aides

The senior Democratic and Republican senators in charge of setting annual transportation spending levels today urged the leader of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to develop a more comprehensive plan for using the White House’s high-speed rail program to spur the development of viable U.S. train networks.

Amtrak_CEO_Appears_Transportation_Committee_rBprScbOQTcl.jpgFRA chief Joseph Szabo (l.) and Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman (r.) both testified today. (Photo: Getty)

The chairman of the Senate appropriations committee’s transport panel, Patty Murray (D-WA), hailed the Obama administration for breaking from its predecessor by strongly supporting rail investments.

But she also questioned the absence of an FRA budget request for implementing the anti-crash technology known as positive train control, and she advised rail chief Joseph Szabo to provide more of a long-term vision for leveraging the $10.5 billion Congress has approved since last year to develop high-speed and intercity rail.

"This committee is a strong supporter of infrastructure spending, but
we have to set strong priorities and make sure that the money’s going to be consistently there," Murray told Szabo. "To get
a request this year to fund it but not [be] sure what’s going to happen next year, I don’t think
that’s going to be enough."

Her GOP counterpart on the panel, Kit Bond (MO), was considerably more harsh in assessing the FRA’s lack of a full-scale national rail plan. The agency has released an initial document outlining its priorities, but a final version is not expected until later this year.

Until that more detailed rail development proposal is released, Bond told Szabo, "it would be irresponsible for the committee to give the [administration’s] high-speed rail plan any additional funds. … Rail supporters have to know there are limits to these [budget] requests even in the best of times."

The FRA and Amtrak submitted separate budget requests for the fiscal year that begins in October. While the former sought $1.6 billion for Amtrak, the government-supported train company itself asked Congress for $2.2 billion. Szabo assured Murray that the administration’s smaller request would not force any service cuts on Amtrak, which is poised to set a ridership record this year.

Still, Murray appeared skeptical of the level of detail included in the budget document, warning Szabo that infrastructure firms "really have to believe Amtrak is going to be a
reliable source of funding" in order to make federal spending on inter-city rail modernization  a driver of domestic manufacturing expansion.

On the positive train control (PTC) front, Szabo indicated that the FRA expects freight and passenger railroads to bear most of the cost burden of its recently adopted requirement for installing the new systems. Congress approved $50 million in grants to help expedite PTC upgrades, but some freight companies are openly challenging the economic value of the new FRA mandate.

  • So far the FRA has made noises about demanding a train control system with a five-year history of success abroad or longer. But it hasn’t tried to pick a national standard, or for that matter adopt any of the emerging standards worldwide (ETCS, ATC, CTCS). This gives a lot of leeway for freight railroads to use incompatible or passenger-hostile standards, and for local software developers to extract economic rent from adapting foreign standards.

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