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Rail groups gear up for infrastructure bill fight

Regulations addressing train crew size, precision scheduled railroading study remain in wider infrastructure bill

A train passes by a grade crossing. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Rail groups are considering their next steps as a major, multi-billion dollar infrastructure bill becomes part of a wider trillion-dollar package that also addresses education, housing and renewable energy infrastructure. 

Last week, the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed the Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation in America (INVEST in America) Act, keeping in the bill’s contents some items that the freight rail industry considers controversial, such as a mandate regulating train crew size and government studies on precision scheduled railroading (PSR), liquefied natural gas by rail and train length. The bill authorizes the federal government to spend nearly $500 billion over five years on surface transportation and infrastructure initiatives and projects.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee announced today that the INVEST in America Act has been folded into a $1.5 trillion proposal that also includes the Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act and funding to address childcare facilities, the United States Postal Service, and renewable energy infrastructure and housing infrastructure, including the development of a electric vehicle charging network. This proposal has been named the Moving Forward Act, or H.R. 2.

Reactions to the committee passage of the INVEST in America Act

When the House committee passed the INVEST in America legislation last week, a number of  controversial items remained intact, resulting in the mixed reactions by rail groups on the bill’s passage.

“The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee continued down the unfortunate path of divisive policy rather than choosing common sense, pragmatic solutions to fund the nation’s public infrastructure. Freight railroads are extremely disappointed in the deeply partisan, backward-looking rail title of the bill,” said Association of American Railroads President Ian Jefferies. 

“If enacted, this legislation would undermine the ongoing modernization of the rail industry through outdated operational restrictions and capacity constraints, weakening the industry’s ability to serve its customers and the economy. This country needs proven, bipartisan solutions for infrastructure, and we will continue to work in earnest toward that goal,” Jefferies said.

The American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) praised some measures within the bill, such as continued funding of grant programs that could support rail infrastructure projects, while panning others.

“We congratulate the committee, led by Chairman DeFazio, for moving ahead with a broad reauthorization of federal highway, transit and rail programs in the INVEST in America Act,” said ASLRRA President Chuck Baker. “There are pieces of this bill that would help short lines serve our thousands of shippers in small towns and rural communities throughout the country, but there are also unfortunately pieces that would hinder our ability to bring their products to bigger domestic markets at urban centers and global markets through our port connections.”

The elements of the bill that pleased ASLRRA included proposed increased funding levels for the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure Safety Improvements program, know as the CRISI grant program, continued support of the National Highway Freight Program, which enables states to apply for federal grants for rail projects and no changes to current truck size and weight standards.

ASLRRA also noted some “problematic” provisions, including requiring two crew members for certain trains and trips. 

The group also didn’t support a proposed mandate that would prohibit a train from blocking a public grade crossing for more than 10 minutes, saying that such a mandate would reduce network efficiency. 

“We understand that this is a lengthy process with many opportunities for stakeholder input between now and when a surface transportation bill becomes public law. We look forward to working with the House to improve the bill as it progresses to the House floor, working with the Senate on its rail title, and then working with all of Congress and the Administration as a bipartisan bill is finalized and eventually sent to the President’s desk for signature,” Baker said on June 18.

Others praise bill’s progress

As freight rail groups offered mixed reactions to the bill, others praised the committee’s actions.

“Chairman DeFazio, Chairman [Eleanor Holmes] Norton [D-District of Columbia], and Chairman [Daniel] Lipinski [D-Illinois] have demonstrated clear leadership in meeting our infrastructure needs; providing unprecedented funding for highways, transit and rail. By providing funding levels that finally meet the demands placed on our transportation network, Congress can help move commuters safely, affordably and efficiently, and can create communities where families want to live and businesses want to invest,” said Larry Willis, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO labor union, in a June 17 letter to Members of the U.S. House of Representatives. “What’s more, Chairman DeFazio has shown much-needed leadership in standing up for the working people who design, build, operate and maintain that infrastructure; ensuring their safety on the job and ensuring job security for those who help move this country’s economy.”

Meanwhile, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), a group that includes rail shippers of chemicals, praised the inclusion of a provision requiring the federal government to study the effects of PSR.

“During several hearings, Congress and the Surface Transportation Board (STB) heard testimony from large and small businesses across America, including many of our members that have been hurt by the drastic operational changes adopted by the major railroads as part of their pursuit to implement [PSR]. Changes were often made with little advance notice or consultation with customers and resulted in harmful service reductions and higher shipping costs,” said ACC President Chris Jahn. “…We…applaud Congressman DeFazio for his efforts to help stop unfair freight rail policies and his call for an objective and thorough examination of the impacts of PSR. The results of the study should help guide the STB as the Board continues to pursue additional freight rail policy reforms.”

Democrats who championed the bill say it differs from previous surface transportation authorization bills in part because of its focus on seeking to reach zero emission from the U.S. transportation sector. 

(Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Joanna Marsh.)

Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.