Court vacates FRA approval of KCSM engineer certification

Published: August 28, 2020

Last updated on September 14th, 2020

WASHINGTON, D.C., (August 28, 2020) — A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has vacated Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) approval of the Kansas City Southern Railway (KCSR) certification program under which locomotive engineers employed by a contractor of Kansas City Southern de México (“KCSM”) have been permitted to operate over Texas Mexican Railway (Tex-Mex) tracks in the United States since July 10, 2018. Under the decision, the matter has been remanded to FRA “either to ‘offer a fuller explanation of the agency’s reasoning at the time of the agency action,’ or to ‘deal with the problem afresh by taking new agency action.’”

This ruling followed a challenge by the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (“SMART–TD”) and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) to the agency’s actions in approving the certification program.

The court agreed with the unions’ position, holding that FRA “fail[ed] to provide a reasoned explanation for its approval of the materially altered engineer certification program administered by one of the railroads.” The court further held that KCSM was under a statutory and regulatory obligation to have its own engineer certification program, which requirements FRA failed to enforce, finding that:

“By virtue of the Railroad Administration’s passive approval system and the complete absence of any accompanying explanation for the agency’s approval of [KCSR’s] modified engineer certification program, the administrative record is devoid of any explanation or reasoning for the administrative steps taken and legal determinations made by the agency in approving the engineer certification program. Likewise, in searching the administrative record for the rationale by which the agency allowed [KCSR] to certify the engineers of another railroad, despite the former’s apparent lack of control over [KCSM’s] crew members, we come up empty-handed. And in a hunt for the reason that service under a foreign regulatory system was credited to allow an abbreviated certification program, we hear only crickets.

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“… what we confront in this case is a total explanatory void. There is no reason — not one word — in the administrative record for the Railroad Administration’s material and consequential decisionmaking on important matters of railroad safety. Not even [KCSR’s] certification program itself, as submitted to the agency, provides an explanation for the relevant determinations that the Agency presumably reached.”

However, the Court declined to rule on several other objections made by the unions that related to conductor certification, transfer of the air brake testing waiver in place for northbound trains, and inadequacy of hours-of-service recordkeeping, finding that there had been no final agency action so the Court lacked jurisdiction to address these objections. In doing so, the Court acknowledged FRA’s “shadowy and unwritten processes make it difficult for aggrieved parties to navigate the … jurisdictional constraints.”

SMART–TD President Jeremy R. Ferguson and BLET National President Dennis R. Pierce applauded the decision.

“We congratulate the court for exposing just how much FRA has become captive to the railroad industry,” the presidents said. “This is a significant victory for Tex-Mex crewmembers, but is just one skirmish in the war to preserve well-paying American jobs. We also thank all the counsel who worked so hard on this case, especially Special Counsel Kathy Krieger for an outstanding job.”

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The SMART Transportation Division is comprised of approximately 125,000 active and retired members of the former United Transportation Union, who work in a variety of crafts in the transportation industry.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen represents nearly 58,000 professional locomotive engineers and trainmen throughout the United States. The BLET is the founding member of the Rail Conference, International Brotherhood of Teamsters.