SMART Transportation Division President Jeremy R. Ferguson and Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) President Dennis Pierce sought clarification today 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, granted by Batory and signed by Karl Alexy, associate administrator for railroad safety for FRA, were held 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 remains under consideration on the desks of 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 other 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 part to their adoption of Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) practices since 2017, 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 roughly 14,000 people in 2019 and by 33,000 since 2000.
STB says that in February 2020 that Class Is had 56,767 transportation crew employees, down from a three-year peak of 68,980 in 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.
Numbers provided to the union show that approximately 15 percent of T&E personnel are furloughed at the time. SMART-TD leader also have knowledge that carriers recently contacted the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) in anticipation of offering voluntary furloughs to employees during the pandemic, which incidentally would make the employee ineligible for RRB unemployment benefits.
Among the most-dangerous aspects of this set of waivers is carriers being permitted to allow employees who are unqualified in the territory and uncertified to operate trains as long as Positive Train Control (PTC) technology is present and engaged.
The federally mandated deadline for full PTC implementation is Jan. 1, 2021, 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 union has received numerous reports of the technology not working as intended and top FRA leadership has indicated in a conversation that PTC was in a “shakedown” phase.
Information provided by the railroads in December 2019 to FRA reported Class I PTC system interoperability at 48 percent.
The FRA waivers of regulations also allow for:
- Verbal quick tie-ups
- Shortened time intervals for required locomotive maintenance and inspections
- The movement of defective equipment to the “nearest available” repair location
- 95% operative brakes to be permissible 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 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-care air brake tests
- Relaxation of required testing and calibration of telemetry equipment
“These regulations were written with the public’s safety in mind,” SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson said. “A number of these waivers are not in the interest of safety and could be creating a recipe for disaster to rail workers and for the public.”
If particular properties do not have a demonstrated reduction of personnel directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, illness or self-quarantine, and these waivers are being employed, members are asked to report it to union leadership immediately.
Read the unions’ letter to FRA.
Read FRA’s letter that grant the waivers to the railroads.