Safety board veteran urges action on FRA nominee

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Jim Hall, former National Transportation Safety Board chairman
Hall & Associates
WASHINGTON — The Senate’s delay in confirming a new leader of the Federal Railroad Administration is putting public safety at risk, the former head of the National Transportation Safety Board says.

“It’s irresponsible,” Jim Hall, who was NTSB chairman from 1994 to 2001, tells Trains News Wire.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and his Senate colleagues from New York and New Jersey in August put a hold on a confirmation vote for Ron Batory, who the Trump administration nominated as FRA administrator.

The senators are using Batory’s nomination, along with others in the Department of Transportation, as a bargaining chip in their effort to obtain federal funding for the Gateway Project, which would add another Northeast Corridor tunnel beneath the Hudson River.

“I marvel sometimes at Congress’ sense of priorities,” Hall says. “Keeping the trains running safely has got to be job one while infrastructure issues are discussed and addressed.”

Hall says he’s surprised that Schumer — long a railroad safety advocate — would hold up a confirmation vote for the government’s top rail safety watchdog.

“Senator Schumer, as much as anyone in the Congress, appreciates the importance of rail to the Northeast and the importance of rail safety,” Hall says.

In the wake of deadly accidents, Schumer has championed positive train control, raised concerns about shipping crude oil by rail, shined a spotlight on grade crossing safety, and fought for sleep apnea testing of engineers.

“Sanity returns after a tragedy,” Hall says. “I hope in this case the right thing will occur and that they will put a qualified person in that position as soon as possible.”

Congress should exercise its oversight responsibility to ensure that nominees are qualified, Hall says.

“What’s not legitimate, of course, is to play games that put politics before safety,” he says. “When that’s being done, it puts the public at risk.”

Congress shouldn’t interfere with the performance of essential safety functions, Hall says. “I believe this is interference,” he says.

And holding up the confirmation of Batory sends the wrong message, Hall contends.

“What concerns me most about this is the lack of respect it shows to the rank-and-file individuals who perform the day-to-day responsibilities that keep our modes of transportation safe,” Hall says.

Government agencies, like any other organization, need leadership, Hall says.

The aging Northeast Corridor has infrastructure issues, security problems, and threats to its technology.

“This is not a time to withhold leadership from a mode of transportation that so many depend on,” Hall says.

Is Schumer playing politics with rail safety? A Schumer spokesman, Justin Goodman, on Wednesday would not answer the question on the record. And he did not immediately respond to an email on Thursday seeking a response to Hall’s comments.

Batory’s nomination cleared the Senate Commerce Committee unanimously on Aug. 2, but has not come to a full vote on the Senate floor because of the hold placed by Schumer, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and New Jersey Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez — all Democrats.

The Trump administration in June named Heath Hall — who once served as an intern in FRA offices — as the deputy administrator of the FRA. Batory is a lifelong and respected railroader who has led the Belt Railway of Chicago and Conrail.

No one disputes the need for the Gateway Project, which would add a new double-track tunnel linking New York and New Jersey, boosting capacity for Amtrak and NJ Transit. The project also would allow for repairs to two existing tunnels damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and make other infrastructure improvements.

The question is how to fund the $30 billion project. The Obama administration had said the federal government would pick up half the cost, with New York and New Jersey splitting the rest. But tunnel funding is not in the Trump administration’s 2018 budget.

Trump met with elected officials from New York and New Jersey in September to discuss the project.

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this report stated that Heath Hall has no prior railroad experience. Hall once served as an intern with the FRA, but has not worked for a railroad. Nov. 9, 2017, 12:53 p.m. Central time.
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