Short lines seek temporary waivers from FRA due to coronavirus

A photograph of a train.

A handful of short line railroads are asking the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to exempt them from conducting random alcohol and drug tests on employees because of concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Fort Worth & Western Railroad (FWWR) of north central Texas, the Texas Northwestern Railway of in the Texas Panhandle, the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad, and the Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad (IHB) of greater Chicago are among the companies that are requesting that FRA temporarily waive certain requirements, including random drug and alcohol tests, because of a lack of staffing as well as concerns of being unable to maintain social distancing guidelines.

The requests come as FRA declared an emergency situation on March 14 because of the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.

“The IHB is petitioning for this waiver in an effort to expand social distancing in the workplace.

Continuing with random drug and alcohol testing places at least three people in a confined area for an extended period of time. We do not know the level at which our testers are willing to expose themselves in this manner and we may be challenged at getting one to respond,” said James M. Pecyna, IHB senior manager of labor relations, in a March 16 letter to FRA.

The requests are part of the federal docket for the emergency situation, FRA-2020-002. Amtrak, some commuter rail lines and other rail-related companies are also seeking temporary waivers.

Besides waiving the random alcohol and drug tests, the short lines are also asking FRA to waive requirements related to hours of service, inspection frequency, brake tests, signal maintenance and testing, and weekly and monthly track inspections. 

The short lines said they would continue the activities related to rail operations, such as inspections and brake tests, but the waivers would enable the companies to allocate employees accordingly should the coronavirus reduce staff availability.

“FWWR plans to phase in relief from regulations only when it is deemed necessary to do so, and when an imminent threat to continued rail service exist due to worsening conditions related to the novel coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19),” FWWR Chief Transportation Officer Jared Steinkamp said in FWWR’s March 22 letter to FRA.