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Rail Law Alert: FRA Grants COVID-19 Emergency Relief to Freight and Commuter Railroads

On March 25, 2020, the FRA issued a letter (Relief Letter) granting a 60-day, partial and conditional waiver of various Federal rail safety regulations as a result of staffing shortages and limitations of movement due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The waiver granted under the Relief Letter applies to all freight and commuter railroads subject to FRA safety regulations.

The Relief Letter responds to a petition letter jointly filed by the Association of American Railroads (AAR), the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA), and the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) (collectively, the Railroad Associations) seeking temporary emergency relief from various FRA rail safety regulation due expected staffing shortages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting emergency measures implemented by various government entities. The Railroad Associations filed their petition for emergency relief following the FRA Administrator’s activation of the emergency relief docket for the purposes of responding to the pandemic.

The Relief Letter grants temporary, conditional waivers for compliance with various the Federal safety requirements concerning the following activities:

  • Track inspection time-interval-dependent requirements (Part 213)
  • Operational tests and inspections of employees (Part 217)
  • Utility employee assignments (Part 218)
  • Railroad locomotive engineer and conductor certifications (Parts 240 and 242)
  • Use of verbal quick tie-up procedures (Part 228)
  • Periodic and time-based locomotive maintenance and inspection requirements (Part 229)
  • Various mechanical requirements (Part 232) and
  • Time-interval-dependent inspection and testing of grade crossing and signal and train control systems (Parts 234 and 236)

Additional specific conditions for each of these waivers are provided in the Relief Letter. Many of the conditions are related to the temporary delay of time- or period-specific requirements for the 60-day relief period. The FRA notes that it lacks the authority to waive requirements that are statutory, rather than regulatory, in nature, particularly the December 31, 2020, deadline for implementing positive train control.

In addition to specific conditions tied to waiver of certain provisions, the Relief Letter stipulates two generally applicable waiver conditions. First, railroads must document the basis on which they conclude that availing themselves of the waiver in a particular circumstance was necessary. Second, any railroad utilizing the waiver must report weekly information concerning non-compliance. This information must be reported to the railroad’s respective industry association (AAR, APTA, or ASLRRA), unless the reporting railroad is unaffiliated with these associations, in which case the reporting railroad should provide such information directly to the FRA.

In the Relief Letter the FRA reserves the right to amend or revoke the granted waiver, which otherwise expires 60 days after its issuance (i.e. May 25, 2020). A copy of the Relief Letter contained in FRA Docket No. FRA-2020-0002, is available here.