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Capitol Hill Roundup: Amtrak Board, BrightlineWest, Train Length

April 28, 2023

Updates on the campaign for National Network seats on Amtrak’s Board of Directors, Brightline’s Las Vegas to Southern California line gets bipartisan Congressional backing, and Federal Railroad Administration calls for greater scrutiny of freight train lengths.

Sen. Tester Joins Call for Geographic Diversity on Amtrak Board

U.S. Senator Jon Tester announced this week that he is formally blocking the Biden Administration’s slate of nominees to the Amtrak Board of Directors, citing the overrepresentation of the Northeast Corridor and the statutory requirement for geographic balance that Congress included in the Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act (IIJA).

As part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Amtrak’s Board must include two individuals who “reside in or near a location served by a regularly scheduled Amtrak service along the Northeast Corridor,” and four individuals from regions outside of the Northeast Corridor (NEC)—two of whom shall live in states served by an Amtrak long-distance service, and two from states served by an Amtrak State-supported service. Currently, five of the six nominees to the board—four Democrats, one Republican—reside along the Northeast Corridor.

Sen. Tester is adding his voice to a group of Republican Senators who issued a letter to the Biden Administration just last week (although the group of Republican Senators did back the single Republican nominee, Joel Szabat, an NEC-resident, pointing out that every other nominee is a Democrat and the Amtrak Board is required by law to have a degree of partisan balance).

“It is important that people in places like rural Montana have a voice at Amtrak to ensure we aren’t left behind,” Tester wrote in his letter to President Biden. “After careful review, I will be blocking the slate of nominees currently before the United States Senate… Unfortunately, this slate of nominees fails to meet the requirements of the law and Congress’s clear intent in including the geographic requirements in the [IIJA].”

“I ask that you take action to solve this issue and bring the slate of nominees into compliance with the IIJA requirements,” continued Sen. Tester. “I believe the board will be well-served by adding a qualified candidate who has greater familiarity with the operations and customer base for Amtrak’s long-distance and regional routes. I stand ready to work with you and my colleagues to confirm these eventual nominees.”

Rail Passengers Association has made securing a voice for passengers in the Midwest, West, and the South a key plank of our advocacy over the past few years, including as part of this year's advocacy pushing during RailNation:DC. Specifically, our coalition has been pushing for the nomination of Knox Ross to the Amtrak Board. Ross is the former Mayor of the Town of Pelahatchie, MS, current Treasurer of the Southern Rail Commission, and a longtime advocate for better service for the National Network.

Please join us in asking your Congressional Representative to support National Network voices on the Amtrak Board of Directors!

Current Membership of the Amtrak Board of Directors (as of April 2023)



Pending Nominee

Former Nominees

Pete Buttigieg

Ex officio as Secretary of Transportation

Nominee: Sarah Feinberg (D)

Stephen Gardner

Ex officio as Amtrak President (non-voting)

Nominee: Joseph Gruters (R)

Christopher Beall (R)

Term expired Jan. 2018

Nominee: Rick Dearborn (R)

Yvonne Braithwaite Burke (D)

Term expired Jan. 2018

Nominee: Robin Wiessmann (D)

Nominee: Lynn Westmoreland (R)

Thomas C. Carper (D)

Term expired Aug. 2018

Nominee: Chris Koos (D)

Anthony Coscia (D)

Term expires Dec. 2020

Nominee: Anthony Coscia (D)

Albert DiClemente (D)

Term expired Sept. 2017

Nominee: Samuel Lathem (D)

Jeffrey Moreland (R)

Term expired June 2015

vacancy (was Derek Kan (R))

Term expires Jan. 2021.

Nominiee: Joel Szabat (R)

vacancy (never filled)

Nominee: David Capozzi (D)

Brightline West Secures Bipartisan Congressional Support

U.S. Senators Jacky Rosen (D-NV) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) led a bipartisan group of Members of Congress in a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) this week to support Nevada’s grant application to build a high-speed rail system between Las Vegas and Southern California. The letter included the support of U.S. Representatives Steven Horsford (D-NV-04), Susie Lee (D-NV-03), Dina Titus (D-NV-01), Mark Amodei (R-NV-02), Nanette Barragán (D-CA-44), Jay Obernolte (R-CA-23), John Garamendi (D-CA-08), and Jimmy Gomez (D-CA-34).

The Brightline West corridor will connect Las Vegas to Las Angeles via Victorville and the Inland Empire. Roughly 50 million one-way trips are made each year between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and Brightline estimates that by offering a 2.5 hour trip—twice as fast as driving—they can initially attract 12 million one-way trips annually. The Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) is partnering with the private sector company to apply for $3.75 billion in federal passenger rail grants, newly available thanks to the bipartisan passage of the IIJA.

“We write to express our strong support of the [NDOT] application to the [USDOT’s] Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail Grant,” the Members of Congress wrote. “…Brightline West will serve as a powerful example of the possibilities of high-speed rail for other cities and regions and is well-positioned to advance the [USDOT’s] priorities related to multi-generational infrastructure investments, job creation, equity, and climate change resiliency and sustainability. High-speed rail connecting Nevada and California also has the potential to significantly increase visitors to both states, boosting travel and tourism across the region."

The USDOT is scheduled to issue the first round of awards from the Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail Program in November or December of this year.

Federal Railroad Administration Issues Safety Advisory on Long Freight Trains

After a series of high-profile derailments—including a BSNF derailment in De Soto, Wisconsin on the same day the advisory was published—the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) issued a safety advisory on April 27th asking railroads to review their policies around long freight trains.

The FRA also advised railroads to examine how their operational decisions are leading to more blocked crossings in residential neighborhoods and rural communities. This issue has taken on even greater salience following a shocking report this week by Pro Publica on how blocked rail crossings are forcing families to crawl under freight trains to get to school.

“FRA is issuing this Safety Advisory to ensure railroads and railroad employees are aware of the potential complexities associated with operating longer trains and to ensure they take appropriate measures to address those complexities to ensure the safe operation of such trains,” wrote FRA Administrator Amit Bose in the advisory. “Among other things, this Safety Advisory recommends that railroads review their operating rules and existing locomotive engineer certification programs to address operational complexities of train length, take appropriate action to prevent the loss of communications between end-of-train devices, and mitigate the impacts of long trains on blocked crossings.”

The full safety advisory is available on the FRA’s website.