Top official departs ‘rudderless’ railroad safety agency

 In Politics

A top official charged with overseeing the safety of the nation’s railroads has resigned “effective immediately,” the Department of Transportation said Saturday after POLITICO raised questions about whether he was simultaneously working as a public relations consultant in Mississippi.

The news comes at a time of strain for the Federal Railroad Administration, which hasn’t had a permanent leader for more than a year while it investigates a string of fatal train crashes and deals with a rising trend of rail-related deaths.

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Heath Hall became the Federal Railroad Administration’s acting chief after being appointed deputy administrator in June. But he subsequently appeared at least twice in local media reports last summer as a sheriff’s department spokesman in Madison County, Miss., where he has long run a public relations and political consulting firm.

The firm also continued to receive payments from the county for its services from July through December, despite Hall’s pledge in a federal ethics form that the business would be “dormant” while he worked at DOT. And Tiffany Lindemann, a former FRA public affairs official who left the agency in September, told POLITICO this week that she had fielded at least three requests from a Mississippi television journalist seeking to speak with Hall during the summer.

This was during a period when Hall was in charge of an agency with a $1.7 billion budget, overseeing the safety of 760 railroads, a multibillion-dollar freight rail industry and the safety of millions of passengers.

Hall has been on an extended leave of absence since last month due to what the FRA has described as a family emergency. But DOT officials said Saturday, after reviewing POLITICO’s latest questions, that his departure is now permanent.

“We were unaware of the information that is being reported but those allegations, if they are true, are troubling,” DOT spokeswoman Marianne McInerney said in a statement Saturday. She added, “Heath Hall has resigned his position at the Department effective immediately.”

Attempts to reach Hall were unsuccessful.

Since January, the agency’s reins have rested in the hands of chief counsel Juan Reyes, a New York attorney with a background primarily in public-private partnerships, who became the acting deputy administrator in January.

But that still leaves the agency without a Senate-confirmed administrator with the leeway to make big policy decisions. Senate Democrats, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, have blocked a confirmation vote for President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the agency, former railroad executive Ron Batory.

It’s a bad time for the agency to have a leadership vacuum: Amtrak has experienced four fatal crashes since December, including one involving a train carrying members of Congress to a Republican retreat in West Virginia. Last year’s 828 railroad deaths nationwide was the highest total in at least a decade, according to FRA data. And many railroads are set to miss an end-of-year deadline to install a crash-prevention technology that has spawned years of friction between the industry and Congress.

“I think a leaderless and rudderless agency is less effective,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a vocal rail safety advocate. “And this one has a preeminently serious and potentially life-and-death responsibility for safety on our railroads.”

Others who deal with the agency fear that a shortage of top leaders will slow its work.

“It’s just a lot for anyone to do,” said Jo Strang, a former FRA official who’s now senior vice president for safety and regulatory policy at the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association. “You’re supposed to have three bodies filling those slots, and you have one.”

Republicans have made the most noise about the blockade on Batory, using the issue to blast Schumer after each fatal train wreck in recent weeks.

“This worrying spate of accidents offers a sobering reminder that partisan obstruction has kept the Federal Railroad Administration, the top rail regulator, without an administrator,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a speech Monday, a day after two Amtrak employees died in a collision between a passenger train and freight train in South Carolina.

Batory “has more than 40 years of rail experience,” added McConnell, who is also the husband of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. “I know of no questions about his qualifications.”

Schumer has held up a vote on Batory while pushing for more federal money for a massive rail project in and around New York City. His office declined to comment this past week about the nomination or calls for him to end his blockade.

While Batory waits in limbo, he’s serving as a senior rail adviser to Chao but cannot make decisions or issue orders, the railroad agency said.

Meanwhile, Hall briefly took the agency’s reins when he became deputy administrator — and acting administrator — in June. But he requested a leave of absence in January “so that he could address an urgent family matter,” the FRA said in a statement Friday, two weeks after POLITICO reported that he had departed. “He remains on leave.”

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