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Rail News: Federal Legislation & Regulation

Senate Commerce Committee OKs rail reforms, Amtrak reauthorization

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation yesterday approved the "Railroad Reform, Enhancement and Efficiency Act" to improve freight- and passenger-rail safety and reauthorizes Amtrak funding at $6.6 billion over the next four fiscal years.

The bill also calls for $570 million per year for grants to rail agencies to fund a variety of projects, including installation of positive train control (PTC) systems, infrastructure and grade-crossing improvements and rail line relocation programs, according to an American Public Transportation Association "Legislative Alert."

Additionally, the bill calls for investments in passenger-rail infrastructure, would leverage private-sector investment in the Northeast Corridor, increase states' say in infrastructure planning on state-supported Amtrak routes and in the Northeast Corridor, and streamlines the permitting process on infrastructure projects, according to a committee press release.

Safety provisions include speed limit mandates, grade-crossing action plans and installation of speed warning signs and alerters. The legislation also would encourage the use of confidential close-call reporting systems.

The bill would authorize the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) program to consider loan applications to support PTC implementation.

Other safety-related components of the measure would require:
• all passenger railroads to install inward-facing cameras to monitor train crews;
• thermal blankets under crude-by-rail tank car jackets to reduce the risk of rupture in a collision or derailment, closing a potential loophole in U.S. Department of Transportation regulations;
• real-time information on the locations and contents of trains carrying hazardous materials;
• the National Academies and Government Accountability Office to study the use of electronically-controlled pneumatic brakes on trains.

The bill also would adjust the passenger-rail liability cap for inflation to $295 million, adjust it every 10 years for inflation, and apply the revised cap to the fatal Amtrak derailment that occurred May 12.

The bill drew praise from Ed Hamberger, president and chief executive officer of the Association of American Railroads. He commended the committee for producing a bipartisan package of measures that would address rail safety, passenger-rail reauthorization and financing, and environmental permitting reform.

"Safety is a core value of the nation’s freight railroads and we are encouraged Committee amendments improved upon the Department of Transportation's tank car rule, in particular with respect to the lack of enhanced thermal protection and the unjustified ECP brake requirement," said Hamberger in a press release. "The data-driven, science-based approach by the Commerce Committee ensures that attention is focused on those areas that truly advance transportation safety."

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 6/26/2015