Chicago-area Rep. Dan Lipinski has a significant cash advantage over his rival in an upcoming Democratic primary, activist Marie Newman. The war chest is thanks, in significant part, to Lipinski’s friendly relationship with the railroad industry.
Nearly one out of every $6 Lipinski raised to accumulate a $1.2 million campaign war chest over the last decade came from rail company PACs, a review of Federal Election Commission reports reveals.
But that relationship has put him at the center of one of the most heated public safety controversies of our time: the railroad industry’s resistance to installing the automatic braking technology known as Positive Train Control. Lipinski helped lead a push in 2015 to delay the requirement that railways install the technology, which experts say will save lives when finally implemented.
Lipinski, one of the most conservative Democrats facing a serious progressive primary challenge this year, won his seat when his father, longtime Rep. William Lipinski, announced his retirement after the 2004 primary — allowing his son to ease his way onto the ballot and effectively face no competition. The senior Lipinski, long backed by the Illinois Democratic machine, went on to become a rail industry lobbyist.
The PTC technology refers to a system of track sensors, satellites, and radio signals used to continuously calculate safe train speeds. The system can automatically slow down or brake a train to avoid a crash or derailment. Experts say the technology could have prevented a number of fatal rail incidents, including an incident last December in which an Amtrak train derailed near Tacoma, Washington, leaving three dead and 62 injured. After each fatal accident, pressure to install the technology grows, lobbyists swarm Capitol Hill, and, as public attention fades, Congress allows the railroad industry to delay installing PTC. Then more people die, and the cycle repeats itself.
Though similar technology is widely deployed in most European countries and much of the advanced industrial world, implementation in the U.S. has been slow. If the U.S. had adopted PTC decades ago, as the National Transportation Safety Board has long recommended, at least 298 deaths and 6,763 injuries could have been prevented, according to an analysis performed by the board.
Congress finally acted to mandate the technology after a major disaster in 2008, when a commuter train in California crashed head on with a freight train, killing 25 people. Investigators found the accident could have been prevented had PTC been installed. The new law mandated PTC installation by the end of 2015, with a penalty of $25,000 per day for lines that failed to meet the requirement.
But private railroad firms and freight companies, which share tracks with commuter rails, balked at the cost of implementing PTC technology and worked aggressively to oppose the mandate. The American Association of Railroads, the leading industry lobby group, mobilized to carve out exemptions and delays for the PTC requirement. The association represents BNSF Railway Company, Canadian Pacific, CSX Transportation, Metra, Amtrak, and other major rail interests.
The American Association of Railroads deployed a bipartisan army of well-connected former lawmakers and safety regulators to storm Capitol Hill and weaken the PTC rules. One of the lobbyists hired to press lawmakers on the requirement was the elder Lipinski. Ethics records show he was registered to lobby directly on safety rules on behalf of the rail industry.
On June 24, 2015, the House Transportation Committee’s railroad subcommittee, on which the younger Lipinski holds a seat, held a hearing on the looming deadline. The rail industry effectively threatened a capital strike, arguing that it had already spent billions of dollars on PTC upgrades, and warned that they would rather shut down entire tracks — bringing economic activity to a halt — instead of paying fines for not implementing PTC by January 1.
“It’s hard to say we haven’t put the best foot forward we possibly could,” said Frank Lonegro, an executive with CSX Transportation, at the hearing, who specifically threatened to shut down passenger train lines around Washington if the mandate wasn’t delayed.
Lipinski agreed that the penalties were onerous and that the industry deserved more time to implement PTC. “We all want to sit up here and fine villains,” Lipinski said. “And this situation, I think, is very complex and there are not easy answers to this.”
(Watch the exchange below. Some browser extensions disable the embedding of video on The Intercept; in that case, view video of it here.)
On September 19, 2015, a number of lawmakers, including Lipinski and other Transportation Committee members, signed a letter urging Congress to consider an extension of the PTC deadline. About a month later, at an event next to the Capitol, Lipinski stood next to Edward Hamberger, the chief lobbyist of the American Association of Railroads, to announce he was leading an effort to pass legislation to provide that extension.
“I’m pleased that House and Senate negotiators have come to an agreement on an extension of the Positive Train Control mandate that sets the bar high for safety and holds the railroads’ feet to the fire,” said Lipinski at the press conference. Shortly thereafter, language was tucked into the 1,300-page transportation bill that extended the PTC deadline to the end of 2018, along with the option for rail firms to petition for a 2020 deadline for some parts of the system.
Lipinski, a member of the House-Senate conference committee to manage the bill, helped shepherd it into law. The bill was signed in December, giving the industry more time to comply with the PTC rules.
Major rail interests claimed that the extension was necessary because of costs. BNSF Railway, for example, was one of the firms that said it had not fully implemented PTC by the end of 2015 deadline and would shut down sections of its system rather than pay the penalties. But during the six-year period preceding the deadline, BNSF paid out over $20 billion in dividends to its major shareholder, Berkshire Hathaway, and reported an increase in operating income.
Investment banks openly pressured other railways, including Norfolk Southern, to spend money on lobbying rather than implementing the safety technology.
Isaac Sancken, a spokesperson for Lipinski’s office, told The Intercept that the Illinois Democrat supported extending the PTC deadline after hearing from a range of stakeholders, pushed for greater funding for commuter rail, and “insisted on strict reporting measures to track railroads’ progress toward implementing PTC.”
“Rep. Lipinski has always prioritized rail safety. In both 2014 and 2015, he introduced bills to improve the safety of tank cars and electronic manifest standards,” Sancken added. Much of the Illinois congressional delegation joined Lipinski in requesting an extension of the PTC deadline.
The spokesperson also rejected claims that any of the rail industry money has influenced the congressional representative and said Lipinski’s father has never lobbied him.
But Lipinski has faced questions in the past for his close relationship with the railway industry. In 2016, the Chicago Sun-Times revealed that his father had collected $4 million in lobbying fees from rail firms with interests before his son’s committee in Congress. In response to the story, the elder Lipinski said he would discontinue his federal lobbying practice.
Records show that Lipinski’s father is still registered in Illinois to lobby for BNSF Railway, the Chicago Transit Authority, and Metra.
The Intercept filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Federal Railroad Administration, revealing letters co-signed by Lipinski that align closely with his father’s lobbying goals.
In two letters filed in 2016, Lipinski asked FRA to consider supporting Metra’s application for federal funds to implement PTC technology. Lobbying records show that in the months preceding the request, the elder Lipinski was paid $10,000 per month to lobby for Metra, which operates the commuter rail system in the Chicago area.
Lipinski has provided a range of support to the rail industry throughout his career as a lawmaker. As the Chicago Sun-Times reported, Lipinski helped secure $100 million for a program to reduce gridlock on rail lines used by both freight and commuter trains. Lipinski also sponsored an amendment to the 2015 transportation bill that required the retrofitting of older tank cars with equipment to prevent explosions, according to a report by the Better Government Association. The rail industry lobbied for the Lipinski amendment because the upgrades would be paid for by oil shipping firms, rather than railway companies.
The Intercept reviewed FEC records and found that the major rail industry political action committees have lavished Lipinski with donations throughout his career. Over the last decade, the companies and their trade associations have provided $232,100 in donations, which Lipinski has been able to largely preserve, since he has not faced a competitive general or primary election since 2008.
The Illinois Democratic primary is March 20. The race, so far, has not centered so much on ethical issues. Newman has focused her campaign on highlighting Lipinski’s longstanding opposition to abortion rights; his vote against the Affordable Care Act; and his conservative record on immigration, reproductive rights, and LGBT issues. During his last primary challenge, in 2008, Lipinski faced questions over his initial support for the Iraq War and his votes against a timeline for withdrawing troops from the region.
As the race has tightened, Chicago megadonors have jumped in on Lipinski’s side, funneling $750,000 to boost his campaign through the big-money group No Labels.