Senate committee holds hearings for 'train freak' Amtrak board appointee; Metra's former chair for the STB

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WASHINGTON — The Senate Commerce Committee on July 26 considered the credentials of a former lieutenant of President Donald Trump and a lifelong “train freak” for a seat on the Amtrak Board of Directors.

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who chaired most of the two-hour session, gave Rick A. Dearborn the train freak label in his opening remarks. In his own opening statement, Dearborn mentioned his collection of O Scale models numbering 75 locomotives and some 300 pieces of rolling stock.

The committee also heard testimony from Martin J. Oberman, former chairman of Chicago's Metra rail system, to be the fifth member of the Surface Transportation Board.

“Amtrak's focus on safety must be its highest priority. It's record must improve,” Dearborn told the committee. He said the appointment in January of Ken Hylander to be Amtrak's chief safety officer was a positive step. He expressed confidence that Amtrak would meet the Dec. 31 deadline for installing positive train control.

Dearborn told the committee that Amtrak needed to make long-distance trains an attractive travel alternative, but stopped short of endorsing government subsidies for the system.

“Amtrak trains should be on time, clean, competitive, and a good option for travelers,” Dearborn said. "Long distance service is a critical part of the national passenger rail system. I am committed to it.”

“I get the impression that Amtrak is being reduced, not built, because it's requiring taxpayer dollars,” U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., told Dearborn. “Do you think taxpayer dollars are necessary to keep Amtrak going?”

“I can't predict whether or not Amtrak could operate without financial assistance,” Dearborn said. “I would hope that if we focus on creating a good product, then revenues will rise and the dependency on federal dollars would be less.”

“If you had a choice between lowering operating losses and shutting down a long-distance line, what would you choose?” asked U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev.

“I hope I'm never faced with that decision,” Dearborn replied.

Dearborn worked for six senators on Capitol Hill since the mid-1970s, including 12 years as chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who is now head of the Justice Department. He was executive director of President Donald Trump's transition team and White House deputy chief of staff until he resigned in March.

Dearborn sidestepped questions from several Democrats who probed him about any connection to he had to alleged Russian involvement in Trump's campaign. He referred to his testimony to a closed-door session of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Oberman told the committee that he was coming up to speed on critical issues facing the STB, including the long-standing struggle between carriers and shippers over “captive switching,” and the board's work on streamlining rate disputes.

“My four years at Metra required my total immersion and continuous education in the railroad industry,” Oberman said. “I quickly learned that all aspects of our national rail system are fundamentally interconnected and the rail system is central to the national economy.”

Oberman said the board has the opportunity for a “fresh look” at the issues. “Honoring precedent and not changing systems that aren't broken are important values. It also critical to be willing to question practices if they appear to be archaic and ineffective in meeting the changing needs of consumers and businesses, or keeping pace with technological changes in the global economy.”

He said he favored negotiation over litigation as a means to resolve issues within the railroad industry, something the STB staff is doing every day.

“As a trial lawyer for 49 years, I know litigation is the worst way to settle a dispute,” Oberman said.
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