Federal Railroad Administration extends temporary safety waivers

A photograph of two railcars.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is extending the length of time that freight and passenger railroads are waived from complying with certain safety regulations, according to recent filings.

In March,  the agency granted the temporary waivers because of the coronavirus pandemic. Freight and passenger railroad trade groups had argued that social distancing makes it difficult to comply with some of the safety regulations, such as those for drug and alcohol testing, training and crew certification.

The extension lengthens the temporary waivers by 60 days. The waivers pertain to social distancing efforts and aren’t related to existing or anticipated workforce strategies.

FRA had declared earlier this year that emergency relief provisions would be available for the railroads because of the pandemic, which in turn paved the way for the freight railroads to seek temporary waivers from complying with certain regulations.

“Subject to certain conditions, extending the requested emergency relief is in the public interest, is necessary to address the COVID-19 public health emergency, and is not inconsistent with railroad safety,” FRA determined in a May 22 letter to the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA). The agency said it considered social distancing recommendations given by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The rail labor unions, including the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers – Transportation Division (SMART-TD), said on May 27 that they disagreed with FRA’s actions because of concerns that some of the railroads could neglect some safety standards during the pandemic. The unions had also said earlier this spring that working conditions for some operations didn’t adhere to proper disinfection practices.

“The agency continues a pattern of FRA appeasement to the carriers,” said SMART-TD President Jeremy R. Ferguson and BLET President Dennis R. Pierce. “Essential safety tasks once again are being deferred with regulators’ blessings while the agency could not be bothered to enact an emergency order to hold carriers accountable to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention minimum health and safety standards for employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

According to FRA’s letters to ASLRRA and other trade groups, FRA said it considered comments from the unions when it decided to extend the waivers. 

Letters to ASLRRA and the American Public Transportation Association differ slightly from the letter to the Association of American Railroads because of the different circumstances of the members. 

FRA’s correspondence, as well as those by the unions and the rail trade groups, can be found on www.regulations.gov under the docket FRA-2020-0002.