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Chairman Lipinski Statement from Hearing on Rail Workforce (June 20, 2019)

Good morning. I want to welcome everyone to today’s hearing of the Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee where we will be looking at the state of the rail workforce.  Railroads and the men and women who make them run are a key component of the American economy.  According to the Association of American Railroads (AAR), in 2017, major U.S. railroads supported over 1.1 million jobs, $219.5 billion in annual economic activity, and $71.3 billion in wages, while creating nearly $26 billion in total tax revenues.  In my home region of northeastern Illinois, six Class I railroads interact along with multiple short lines, while Metra and Amtrak run hundreds of trains over these same tracks.  The confluence of all these railroads makes northeastern Illinois the rail hub of North America.

The more than 160,000 railroad workers in this country are the backbone of the industry and keep our world class rail system the powerful economic force that it is.  In northeastern Illinois, thousands of workers get 1300 Metra, Amtrak, and freight trains to their destinations on a daily basis.  There is no doubt that without the men and women who are on the frontlines, the industry would not be the success it is today.  Historically, in return, the railroads have provided good-paying jobs with good benefits for their workers.  It is important that this continues.

Today we will hear from a number of witnesses about the widespread changes that are taking place in the railroad industry and the impacts that these changes are having on the rail workforce.  Two of the significant changes we have seen recently are longer trains and the adoption of precision scheduled railroading, or PSR.  These changes in rail operations have raised concerns about working conditions and safety, as well as negative community impacts and the quality of service being provided. 

Freight railroads are now running consistently longer trains, upwards of 10,000-15,000 feet.  That equates to two or three mile long trains, or to put it another way, 33 football fields. However, the rail infrastructure has largely gone unchanged.  This has led to operational challenges such as increased blocked crossings or idling on mainline tracks for extended periods of time.  This causes problems for workers, and also for communities.  These are issues that I have always seen in my district but are getting worse.  One example is in the Chicago neighborhoods of Mt. Greenwood and Beverly.  Now these types of issues are being seen in more districts across the country.  I am pleased that the THUD appropriations bill has report language on blocked crossings that I asked to be included so we can work on solutions to these some of these issues, but solutions across the country will require significant infrastructure investment.

Another notable trend in the railroad industry is the adoption of PSR.  All but one of the Class I railroads have adopted, or are in the process of adopting, PSR.  At its essence, this is a fundamental shift in how railroads operate.  The move in the industry toward PSR has been accompanied with significant job cuts in the past few years.  Class I railroads and Amtrak employed 163,220 workers in April 2019, versus just five years ago when the industry employed 194,790 workers— a 16 percent reduction.  I look forward to the testimony from the Machinists and our other witnesses about the impact of PSR on the rail workforce.

Two other issues that we will hear about from SMART-Transportation and BLET are a two-person crew requirement and cross-border trains.  I am once again a supporter of the two-person crew bill because it is imperative that our trains remain safe as the industry changes.  Additionally, we must ensure that all trains operating in the U.S. have crews that are well trained and can meet FRA’s robust safety standards.  This is an issue at our southern border.  We will also hear from the Amtrak police union over their concerns about Amtrak’s plans to cut its police force by 20%.  Amtrak police are on the front line of keeping our surface transportation system safe on a daily basis.  In Northeastern Illinois, they protect the more than 6.5 million Metra and Amtrak passengers that use Chicago Union Station on annual basis.

Finally, at the railroad tech day in May, we got the chance to see the next generation of technologies that the industry hopes to incorporate into their operations – including drone inspection, virtual reality simulators, and fleet-wide predictive maintenance.  While these technologies are exciting, I want to make sure that we keep in mind that technology will not replace the necessity for workers.  Therefore, we must ensure that we continue to invest in our men and women in the rail industry, and expanding workforce development programs is one of my priorities as we head toward surface transportation reauthorization.

I look forward today to hearing from our witnesses about how we can improve the state of the rail workforce and the industry as a whole.  I now recognize the Subcommittee Ranking Member, Mr. Crawford, for an opening statement.

Investing in grade separations is also critical and I was pleased to help secure $150 million in the Illinois State Capital Bill for the 63rd and 65th and Harlem grade separation project.