Monday, March 3, 2014

Railroad Oversight Hearing, 2-26-14

I got snowed/iced in today (IN TEXAS??) so I had a chance to go back and watch the video of last week’s oversight hearing conducted by the Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. As I predicted the major focus of the meeting was on issues related to the rail transportation of crude oil and PTC implementation.

Administrative Issue

Before I get down to looking at the actual hearing I have a beef with the staff of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The hearing got off to a late start (not unusual, the Members do have responsibilities on the floor that the Chair has little control over), but the video started at the scheduled start time and we get to see the audience slowly file in and mill around for 41 minutes. This, and the 30 minute absence of the Subcommittee Members for floor votes, really should not be part of the video record. The video should start with the gaveling of the hearing to order and then stop when it is adjourned (even temporarily). To do otherwise is a waste of resources and makes it difficult for viewers to follow the hearing.

Typical Oversight Hearing

In many ways this could have been an oversight hearing about anything. The Subcommittee members and the witnesses all came to the table with their own agendas clearly in hand. We had a number of instances (Starting with the Chairman Denham’s (R,CA) castigation of Administrator Szabo about backing out of agreements made with the Chair) where congress critters and bureaucrats talked past each other in the question answer process.

There was only one instance where a witness (Administrator Quarterman) was called on failing to answer the specific question asked. That was when she was asked when was the absolute soonest that the current rail safety ANPRN could become a final rule. She kept trying to explain the rule making process, but Rep. DeFazio (D,OR)  just wanted an estimated date not an explanation. It was probably an unanswerable question, but Quarterman’s answer should have reflected that.


There was a brief discussion about the latest DOT emergency order that had been issued the evening before this hearing. Ms. Quarterman was asked to clarify the phrase “conducted with sufficient frequency and quality” that was used to describe the requirement for testing crude oil being prepared for shipment. She replied that the phrase had been carefully written to be vague to allow shippers to determine how often their products should be tested based upon their operation; stable crude sources should be tested less often than crude from multiple or changing sources.

There were lots of questions about DOT 111 railcar phase out and new rail car designs, but there were no definitive answers given. Ms. Quarterman made a very important point, however, about railcar design when she reminded everyone that they were not, would not be, designed to withstand an impact at ’40, 50 or 60 miles per hour’.

Mr. Hamberger, from the Association of American Railroads (AAR) apparently surprised many on the Subcommittee when he described the delays in PTC implementation that are being imposed on the railroads by the FTC. Their surprise is more than a little surprising itself because last summer the Chair of the full Committee wrote a letter to the FCC asking for this problem to be resolved. The Senate hearing this week will include an FCC representative to answer questions on this issue.

The question of emergency response to crude derailments and fires like those seen in Quebec and North Dakota came up. Both Szabo and Hamberger touted the training being given at the TTCI facility outside of Pueblo, CO. Hamberger mentioned a couple of times his organization’s support for sending first responders to crude oil response courses here and TRANSCAER type training that would be given at various places around the country. Quarterman announced that some HMEP grants would be targeted at communities preparing for potential responses to crude oil spill.

Senate Hearing

As I mentioned this weekend, the Senate will be holding a similar meeting this Thursday. It will be interesting to see if there is any new information that comes out of that hearing. Given that the same organizations will be represented (the BLET union representative will be replaced by someone from the FCC), the only real difference will be the questions asked. The new Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee, Sen. Blumenthal (D,CT) did make an appearance at last week’s hearing; basically to introduce himself to his colleagues across the Hill. 

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