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Rail Law Alert - FRA Proposes New Track Inspection Rule and Introduces Web Portal for Reporting Blocked Crossings

FRA Proposes Rule to Remove High-Density Commuter Line Exception From Track Inspection Regulations

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) issued a proposed rule on December 31, 2019, which would remove the high-density commuter line exception from the track inspection regulations at 49 C.F.R. 213.233(b)(3).  A copy of the proposed rule is available here, and FRA is soliciting comments through March 2, 2020, at Docket No. FRA-2018-0104.

Current regulations require that each main track be traversed by a vehicle or inspected on foot at least once every two weeks, and that each siding be traversed by a vehicle or inspected on foot at least once a month, but include the following exception:  “[o]n high density commuter railroad lines where track time does not permit an on track vehicle inspection, and where track centers are 15 foot or less, the requirements of this paragraph (b)(3) will not apply. . .”

FRA’s proposal follows a 2015 National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendation to eliminate the exception. NTSB’s recommendation arose from its investigation of a 2013 Metro-North Railroad accident in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and prompted a Congressional directive that FRA review the high-density commuter line exception.  In 2015, which Congress included a provision in the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (the “FAST Act”) ordering the Secretary of Transportation to evaluate whether railroads “providing commuter rail passenger transportation on high-density commuter railroad lines should be required to inspect the lines in the same manner as is required for other commuter railroad lines.” In the proposed rule, FRA notes that “[n]o track owners or railroads currently utilize this exception.”

In addition to removal of the exception to 49 C.F.R. 213.233(b)(3), the proposed rule provides for continuous rail testing as well as the use of flange-bearing frogs in crossing diamonds.  The proposed rule also relaxes the guard check gage limits on heavy-point frogs used in Class 5 track, and makes other revisions. 

FRA Introduces Web Portal for Reporting Blocked Roadway-Railroad Crossings

On December 20, 2019, the FRA announced the establishment of a new webpage that allows the public and law enforcement to report blocked highway-rail grade crossings. 

The webpage, available here, allows public users to pinpoint the blocked crossing on a map and then report the following information: (1) the reason the crossing was blocked; (2) the time of the blocked crossing; (3) the duration of the blockage; and (4) any “immediate impacts,” such a delays to first responders. Users may provide any additional information they wish in a comments section. The webpage also has a dedicated reporting form for law enforcement. 

FRA Administrator Ron Batory states, “FRA expects that collecting this data will help us identify where chronic problems exist and better assess the underlying causes and overall impacts of blocked crossings – locally, regionally and nationwide.”   

Although the webpage notes that “there are no federal laws or regulations pertaining to blocked crossings,” creation of the website is an indication that FRA recognizes that blocked at-grade crossings have become a significant issue for communities. 

Please contact Allison FultzChuck SpitulnikSuzanne Silverman or Byron Smith if you have any questions about this law alert or if we may assist in drafting comments on the proposed rule.