Federal Railroad Administrator Nominee Addresses Senate CommitteeWritten by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
Amit Bose, Deputy Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, took on questions about automated track inspection, crew sizes, hazardous materials transportation, and port congestion, among other topics, during a Sept. 22 hearing on his nomination by President Biden to be the next Federal Railroad Administrator.
Also part of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation nomination hearing were Meera Joshi, to be the Administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration; Victoria Wassmer, to be the Chief Financial Officer of the Department of Transportation; and Mohsin Syed, to be the Assistant Secretary of Government Affairs of the Department of Transportation.
The hearing was led by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Committee Chair.
The White House on April 23 announced that President Biden would nominate Bose for the top FRA job. Currently, Bose serves as Deputy FRA Administrator, returning to the agency where he was also Chief Counsel and Senior Adviser. Throughout the Obama-Biden Administration, Bose also held positions in the Transportation Secretary’s office as Associate General Counsel and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Governmental Affairs. Before joining DOT, he worked for New Jersey Transit, the New Jersey Department of Transportation, and the U.S. Congress as a Transportation staffer. In addition to his decades in the public sector, Bose previously worked at HNTB as Associate Vice President and Program Director.
Following are among the questions posed to Bose during the Sept. 22 hearing and his responses.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Ranking Committee Member: Let me ask Mr. Bose to talk about innovative rail technology, and I understand sometimes when the innovative approaches are suggested, they run up against regulations, which favor doing it the old way. One example would be automated track inspections as opposed to or compared to the existing inspection methods. If confirmed, I hope you’ll continue forward thinking and a deliberate approach to providing regulatory relief and consideration to test programs that could demonstrate how new technologies can improve safety. Would you discuss that for just a moment, Mr. Bose?
Bose: Thank you for your question, Senator. I agree absolutely that current technology and technology advances can improve safety, and at the FRA, particularly through our office of Railroad Systems and Technology, we make an effort to keep up with the technology changes that are occurring in the industry. We’re absolutely aware that we need to give careful consideration to waivers and make sure they’re in the public interest and are consistent with rail safety. And when you’re talking about track inspections and testing programs, those are ongoing and exist right now, and we want to see the results from those. And you absolutely have my commitment in making sure we’re carrying the industry forward to meet the needs of today and the future.
Sen. Wicker: … The infrastructure bill that passed the Senate is bipartisan; 18 or 19 Republicans or so vote for it; major expansion of discretionary grant programs. Of course it’s highways, bridges, but a lot of rail—unprecedented federal investments in railroad infrastructure, including more than $40 billion for discretionary grant programs administered by FRA. We can spend, $40 billion is a lot of money, but we can spend most of it on a few big, major programs, or we can use it to fund a greater number of more modest projects that have positive impacts on many communities that run on freight and passenger rail service. So how do you balance that out, Mr. Bose?
Bose: Senator, thanks for that question, and it’s absolutely a historic time for rail, and the trust that the Congress is placing in the Federal Railroad Administration through your work on the bipartisan bill is reflective, I think, of the efforts of the public and how much they want rail to be a travel option for the country. The United States has a chance to lead the world once more through investment in infrastructure, and connecting our communities is absolutely an important part of that. And if you would have noticed in the American Jobs Plan that the President put forward, there were a variety of rail programs offered. It wasn’t only focused on high speed rail; it wasn’t only focused on connecting big cities to each other or one part of the country to another. We know that these needs are throughout the country so you absolutely have my commitment that the programs the FRA institutes will go to the communities that support passenger rail throughout the country.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.): Mr. Bose, we have in Minnesota, of course the Empire Builder goes through our state, and we’re really interested in making that even stronger. We’re also really interested in a rail up to Duluth, Minnesota, aptly named the Northern Whites Express, is our proposal, and some intercity passenger rail and some other things as well. Can you talk about the importance of rail, not just to Chicago, New York and L.A., but also to places like Minnesota and Deluth.
Bose: Absolutely, Senator. Thank you for your longstanding support for rail and for the question. There’s no doubt that rail has a chance to connect the communities throughout the United States and places like Minnesota that have service but want to expand that service and look for new opportunities. The FRA definitely wants to support those efforts through technical assistance, going out to the communities, talking to them, making sure that the planning efforts and construction that deliver those projects are all done, so you have my assurance on that, Senator.
Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.): … We previously discussed my bipartisan legislation to authorize FRA’s blocked crossing portal, which was ultimately included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. You’ll recall that the portal would allow the public to report instances of blocked crossings to the FRA. Do you support the permanent authorization of this program?
Bose: Senator, Yes, I do.
Sen. Fisher: If confirmed, how will you continue using the data from the portal to address the blocked crossings issues that we have?
Bose: Senator, we actually have the blocked crossing portal going right now, and what we do is take the data from that and we have certain thresholds, and we communicate with the communities and also the railroad companies that the blocked crossings effect. And the railroad companies are part of it, so we have an open communications with them and when there’s a pattern we talk to the railroad company to make sure it doesn’t continue.
Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.): When you and I spoke earlier this year, I expressed my concern with FRA pursuing a rulemaking on minimum crew size. In the most recent regulatory agenda, DOT indicated that there would be a rulemaking to address the potential safety impacts of one-person train operation. Given that FRA has previously said that there is no safety data to justify such a regulation, could you please share with the Committee what new information DOT has collected to justify such a regulation?
Bose: Thank you for the question, Senator. As you may be familiar, a court found against FRA’s actions in the past and vacated the agency’s preemption order and remanded the rule back to FRA, so we are in the process of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which will be a public and open process; and what we’re doing, one reason we’re doing it is because if there is not a rulemaking, then we believe that states would have a patchwork of laws, so that’s just one thing to keep in mind. We are going to look at the potential safety impacts of crew size on train operations and make sure there’s a reason to do it. Again, we’ll go through the NPR process, and there will definitely be a lot of input from the industry and other stakeholders in rail.
Sen. Cantwell: I have a couple of questions I’d like to ask Mr. Bose. I wanted to ask you about crude by rail. Obviously this is a very big issue for the state of Washington. In December of last year, a mile long train derailed in Custer, Washington, causing a town to be evacuated and spilling 30,000 gallons of crude oil, despite only going 7 mph. So we’re seeing these incidents. Ten tank cars derailed, and three of them caught on fire. No one was injured, but this incident is a reminder of the danger that crude oil and LNG trains pose to communities near rail. What will you be doing to ensure that hazardous materials are operated in a safe manner? And will you commit to reviewing whether current safety standards need to be enhanced in light of this?
Bose: Senator, I’ll start out by saying that for enhancements, absolutely commit to looking at that. In my short time at DOT, this time around, we’re absolutely working with the Pipelines Hazardous Materials Safety Administration as well on this issue because it involves hazardous materials. Regarding the Custer, Washington, derailment, we issued our investigation report a few weeks ago. FRA understands the potential risk associated with the movement of energy products and other hazardous materials. And we will absolutely be working, continuing to work with state and local governments and the industry to advance safety in all parts of rail transportation when it involves hazardous materials. And we also are going to continue to work closely on tank car safety as well.
Sen. Cantwell also asked each of the nominees about what can be done to relieve port congestion. Their response follow.
Joshi: … From the perspective of the trucking industry, I think it’s critical that there be transparency and that the financial incentives be aligned. Because there’s so many moving parts at a port, in order to make the trucking experience of moving freight in and out as efficient as possible, there has to be transparency on appointment systems, flexible hours, and more certainty on when it containers need to be dropped off and picked up. As well as aligning the financial incentives. So if the trucking community is bearing the brunt of wait times, and that time is not compensated either because they have to hold containers, or because truck drivers have to wait for loading and unloading, then the congestion and the downtime is felt by them. And there’s no incentive to disperse that among the whole system, which therefore will have the overall effect of improving throughput.
Sen. Cantwell: Do you think we should do a pilot program right now on something? You know, we just had a big focus with Deputy Secretary Trottenberg coming to the Port of Seattle to look at that issue and look at the West Seattle Bridge. But more specifically, there’s an opportunity to demonstrate that there is a faster way and a cleaner way to get those truck drivers back on the roads and move the products more effectively through the ports. Do you think that there’s a demonstration that could show this?
Joshi: I would certainly love to work on exploring that idea. We’ve been operating at a certain, you know, in a certain way for many, many decades. So I think it’s high time to try to change things and look at them differently. And if there’s an isolated place where we can have a demonstration project that’s working for the industry and for the ports, then I’d be happy to explore that with you and your staff.
Sen. Cantwell: OK, thank you. Mr. Bose, what do you think we should do about this problem?
Bose: Well, Senator, excellent question. And it’s something that I along with the Deputy Administrator Joshi, we have been tasked by the Secretary [USDOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg] because he’s on the Supply Chain Disruption Taskforce from the White House. And the White House, as you know, issued an executive order about supply chain disruption. So it’s absolutely on our radar. When looking at it from the rail industry perspective, we know that there’s congestion at the ports, logistical equipment scarcity, labor shortages, a combination of things. And we all have a different role to play in that. FRA, for our part, is definitely going to look at the rail issues in collaboration with other transportation modes, and also other agencies across government to look for any opportunity we can to help alleviate the situation.
Cantwell: Thank you. Mr. Syed?
Syed: Thank you, Chair Cantwell. Well, building off what Mr. Bose just said about the executive order, the department recently issued a request for information and the Federal Register is seeking comments from stakeholders to figure out how to address these challenges and the department anticipates releasing this assessment early next year. So hopefully that’ll inform some of the efforts here. The department also recently had former Deputy Secretary of Transportation, John Porcari, join as a port envoy. And we look forward to having him in his expertise at the department to find near term opportunities to address port congestion.
Sen. Cantwell: Maybe we should have Mr. Porcari come before the committee if he’s the person in charge of this. Okay, well, let’s hear from Ms. Wassmer.
Wassmer: Senator Cantwell, this has been a really big issue. … Again, we’ve talked about the investments that are anticipated in the infrastructure bill, we also made it a point this year in the President’s budget for ’22 to request resources. We do take this strongly at the department and in this administration, and look forward to working with you on that.
What’s next? The senators had 72 hours from Sept. 22 to submit any other questions to the nominees, and the nominees will have a week to respond.
Download Bose’s written testimony below: