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Rail groups split on Democrats’ infrastructure bill

Bill seeks federal examination of longer trains, precision scheduled railroading

A Union Pacific train. (FreighWaves/Jim Allen)

A number of the railroad-related items listed in the 846-page, $500 billion infrastructure bill introduced by House Democrats this week could face some hot debate as it goes through Congress, judging by the reactions of rail trade groups and rail labor.

The bill, entitled Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation in America (INVEST in America), is a five-year, $494 billion surface reauthorization bill unveiled on June 3 by the U.S. House and Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

Rail labor groups praised several provisions within the bill, including those on establishing a mandate for two-person train crews under certain conditions and addressing fatigue mitigation, train lengths and cross-border operations with Mexico, among other issues. 

“Title V of the INVEST in America Act is the most significant piece of railroad legislation since the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008,” said Dennis R. Pierce, national president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET). “…Thank you to our friends in Congress who have taken our efforts to educate them to heart, and have taken up the cause of a safer and more economically secure working environment for railroad workers.”

Pierce continued, “This nation has a historic election coming up in November, and we must support all the candidates who walk shoulder to shoulder with us. We will support Members of Congress from any party who will stand with us. I urge all BLET members to support the INVEST in America Act, and to make candidate support of this bill a litmus test when they vote in November. We must try to defeat those candidates who put safety and economic security of rail workers second to industry’s profits, and we must vote for those who have committed to aligning themselves with our interests.”

SMART-Transportation Division echoed BLET’s sentiments. “We applaud Chairman Peter DeFazio for listening to the needs of workers represented by SMART-TD, and responding accordingly. By providing robust funding for infrastructure, passenger rail and transit, as well as the inclusion of smart transportation policy, the Invest in America Act represents a bold step forward for our members,” said Jeremy Ferguson, president of SMART-TD.

However, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) disagreed with the inclusion of some issues, including train crew size and an examination of precision scheduled railroading.

“America’s railroads are extremely disappointed in the House surface transportation reauthorization released today. When all of us should be working together toward common  sense solutions, this partisan legislation falls far short of what this moment demands,” said Ian Jefferies, president and CEO of AAR. “Smart policies have helped railroads continue to deliver for their customers during this pandemic. Now is not the time to retreat from these, much less impose wish list policy riders or unnecessary operational requirements, such as mandating crew size, barring the streamlining of operations and constraining the already limited capacity of the rail network. Now more than ever – we can and must do better together.”

Meanwhile, the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) said it looked forward to working with members of Congress to push through bipartisan legislation.  “There will be many policies considered in this bill that are crucially important to the ability of the short line freight railroad industry to meet the evolving needs of our customers, enabling thousands of important agricultural, energy and industrial shippers in small-town and rural America to remain connected to the national and global economies,” said ASLRRA President Chuck Baker.

Railway Supply Institute (RSI) President Mike O’Malley also said his group looks forward to working with Congress on the bill. The group said it was pleased with the Buy America provision in the bill, which RSI says would close loopholes and add incentives for American jobs while streamlining compliance for U.S. manufacturers.

“This legislation will provide over $60 billion in much-needed funding to support substantive improvements to rail infrastructure across the country, including $29 billion for Amtrak and $19 billion for passenger rail improvement, modernization and expansion projects. We also commend inclusion of strong funding levels for federal transit and grade crossing safety programs,” O’Malley said. “These investments will enhance safety for millions of passengers, preserve thousands of jobs, and support our domestic supply chain in this critical time.”

The Coalition for America’s Gateways & Trade Corridors (CAGTC) “applauded” the bill’s provisions that supported multimodal freight. Some of these provisions include a continuation of grant programs that support multimodal and intermodal freight infrastructure projects both large-scale and smaller-scale, the establishment of a joint task force between the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Internal Revenue Service to study the establishment and administration of a fee on multimodal freight surface transportation services and removing the modal cap on the National Highway Freight Program, which would allow state departments of transportation to address needs regardless of transportation mode.

“As our nation begins to reopen and chart a path for economic recovery, much will be asked of our multimodal freight system. Sustained, dedicated investment that is commensurate with the infrastructure needs of our supply chain is needed to support our nation’s return to prosperity,” said CAGTC Executive Director Elaine Nessle.

Just what is in this bill?

A photograph of railcars parked in a rail yard.
Cars in a yard. (FreightWaves/Jim Allen)

Here are just a few of the proposed, rail-related provisions in the bill, in addition to requests for continued funding to infrastructure grants and funding and oversight of Amtrak:

  • A study to assess safety culture would be funded under section 9517 of the TRAIN Act.
  • The U.S. Secretary of Transportation would sponsor a study through the National Academies looking at the impact climate change might have on U.S. passenger and freight rail infrastructure. 
  • Amtrak could file a request with the Surface Transportation Board asking to operate additional trains on a freight rail-owned line, and the Board would have to determine whether the request would impair freight rail service.
  • The U.S. Comptroller General would study how precision scheduled railroading has impacted stakeholders such as the railroads, rail employees and rail shippers. The study would examine the issue from various angles, including safety impacts to employees, reductions in rail yards and rail facilities, demurrage and accessorial charges, longer trains and freight rail capital expenditures.
  • In accident and train incident reporting, FRA would also be required to include the number of train crew members in the report.
  • Freight trains would be mandated to have at least two crew members aboard, including one conductor and one engineer, for most rail operations. Exceptions include trains in a rail yard or trains operated by small short line railroads. But trains carrying toxic or flammable materials or trains longer than 7,500 feet must have at least two crew members.
  • The Secretary of Transportation cannot grant any waivers or waiver modifications enabling the ability to perform mechanical and brake inspections in Mexico in place of existing certification requirements.
  • Rail cars operating north of the 37th parallel shouldn’t be using DB–60 air brake control valves manufactured before January 2006.

One Comment

  1. Kurt

    Very informative, although I was surprised to see the inclusion of the DB-60 air brake controller north of the 37th parallel. This seems rather odd considering it pretty much bisects the country at St. Louis and is the dividing line between several western states, so in theory UP trains on the southern transcon (SP) line wouldn’t need to comply, but BNSF trains would? What is the back story here?

Comments are closed.

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.