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Union leaders demand clarification from FRA on waivers

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio, March 31 — Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) President Dennis R. Pierce and SMART Transportation Division President Jeremy R. Ferguson sought clarification from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) after the agency granted 60-day emergency waiver requests to railroads on March 25, ostensibly to maintain their operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As you are already aware, SMART Transportation Division, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, and other rail labor Organizations take strong exception to certain aspects of FRA’s seemingly absolute and unconditional approval of such requests,” the presidents wrote in a letter to Administrator Ron Batory. “We find the sweeping nature of these approvals alarming, especially in view of the fact that the rules waived are written with the safety of our members, and the general public, in mind.

“Notwithstanding the unfounded nature of some of the carriers’ claims in their applications, our immediate concerns are founded in our firm belief that if the carriers understand and apply FRA’s waiver to be carte blanche invitation to ignore rules, it will have a substantial chilling effect on safety.”

The waivers were withheld from the public docket for a number of days by the agency, which limited the ability of labor organizations to comment and seek a public hearing.

Meanwhile, an emergency order request sought by SMART-TD and the BLET seeking sanitation of areas frequented by frontline rail workers through the course of performing their “essential” duties has not yet received a response from FRA officials.

The waivers grant the Association of American Railroads (AAR), American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) and American Public Transportation Association (APTA) as well as their associated railroad entities the ability to temporarily circumvent established federally mandated requirements for:

• Track inspection
• Operational tests and inspections
• Restrictions on utility employees
• Locomotive and conductor certifications
• Territorial qualifications

The reason cited by carriers in their petition was to cope with potential workforce shortages the railroads may experience during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Petitioners assert that a reduction in availability of employees due to the COVID-19 pandemic will affect railroads’ ability to keep freight trains carrying critical goods and materials necessary for the country’s welfare operating during this emergency, and that compliance with all Federal railroad safety regulations, with the expected workforce shortage, would significantly hinder railroads’ ability to operate,” the FRA said in its response granting the waivers.

But thanks in large measure to the railroads’ adoption of Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) practices, the total employee headcount for Class I freight carriers — including administration/ management, maintenance and transportation crew, as reported by the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB), has been axed by nearly 25,000 people since September 2016, and transportation crew headcounts are down over 18½% since November 2018.

“There is also a concern that the carriers would use the excuse of a ‘downturn in business’ to artificially create a shortage of manpower to exploit the use of the waivers,” Ferguson and Pierce wrote.

Among the most-dangerous aspects of this set of waivers is carriers being permitted to allow employees who are unqualified over the territory and uncertified to operate certain classes of trains as long as Positive Train Control (PTC) technology is present and engaged.

The federally mandated deadline for full PTC implementation is Dec. 31, 2020, and full interoperability among railroads has not been achieved, yet these waivers make the assumption that PTC functionality is sufficient to allow for unqualified crew members to operate over America’s railroads.

The FRA waivers of regulations also allow for:

• Verbal quick tie-ups
• Lengthened time intervals for required locomotive maintenance and inspections
• The movement of defective equipment to the “nearest available” repair location
• only 95% operative brakes for trains leaving their initial terminal
• Trains can travel 1,200 miles without an intermediate Class IA brake inspection
• Extended haul trains can travel 2,000 miles without an intermediate Class IA brake test
• The four-hour off-air time is extended to 24 hours, and to 48 hours with FRA permission
• Transfer test requirements are relaxed
• The ability to combine two operating trains without additional inspections other than a Class III brake test
• Relaxation of yard air source testing and calibration requirements, and of requirements for single-car air brake tests
• Relaxation of required testing and calibration of telemetry equipment

Tuesday, March 31, 2020
bentley@ble-t.org

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