STB Chair Martin J. Oberman Retires

Martin J. Oberman oversaw the federal regulator during a critical time. President Joe Biden plans to name Robert Primus as his successor.

STB Chair Martin J. Oberman Retires

By Railfan & Railroad Staff

U.S. Surface Transportation Board Chairman Martin J. Oberman — perhaps the most influential chair in the board’s nearly 30-year history — retired on Friday after five years at the federal regulator and three years as its leader. 

Following Oberman’s retirement, it was announced that President Joe Biden planned on designating Robert Primus as board chair. 

“It has been the honor of my career to have served on the Board for the past five years, and more importantly, to have been selected by President Biden to serve as STB Chairman and as a member of the White House Competition Council,” Oberman said in a statement on Friday. “In my view, at the STB, over the last three years, we have been able to make meaningful contributions towards accomplishing those goals with respect to the railroad industry. While I look forward to spending more time with my family, I will miss the dedicated STB staff who have worked tirelessly as public servants.”

While Oberman only served on the STB for five years, he led the regulator during a critical time in the rail industry marked by service issues and what will likely go down as the last Class I merger.

Oberman, 78, had a legal career before entering politics in 1975 when he was elected to the Chicago City Council. Oberman made a name for himself as a reformer and often displayed an independent streak during his 12 years representing the 43rd Ward. After leaving the city council, he was appointed to the Shore Protection Commission, tasked with rebuilding the city’s shoreline. In November 2013, he was appointed to the Metra board by then-mayor Rahm Emanuel. In 2019, he was appointed by President Donald Trump to the STB, and in 2021, he was named its chair by President Joe Biden. 

Oberman’s time as chair would be notable. In 2022, he blasted the executives of Class I railroads for the industry’s dismal service performance following the pandemic. During a series of hearings about the service crisis, Oberman had numerous tense exchanges with railroad officials over Precision Scheduled Railroading and technology like Trip Optimizer, which some said was handicapping railroaders in the field. 

“The people paying more for bread, don’t care about TripOptimizer,” snapped Oberman at one executive, in a memorable quote that would eventually end up on a t-shirt — easily a first for an STB chair. 

Oberman also had the distinction of being on the board when it approved the Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern merger earlier this year, probably the last Class I merger that will occur in North America. 

“Without question, Marty was the right Chairman at the right time,” Primus said. “His leadership and tenacity guided the Board through a tumultuous service meltdown as well as a myriad of difficult cases that came before the Agency. Marty elevated the voice of shippers and rail labor and never missed an opportunity to remind the Class Is of their public responsibility to provide consistent and reliable service on a safe and resilient network. Though he is departing the Board, Marty’s impact will be felt for many years to come.” 

This article was posted on: May 10, 2024