The Federal Railroad Administration on Sept. 21 sided with a SMART Transportation Division request to reject the extension of COVID-related regulatory waiver requests by the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).
The waivers, initially granted in March 2020 by the Trump administration in response to the emerging coronavirus pandemic, were roundly criticized by the SMART Transportation Division at their inception. They had been extended on multiple occasions since then and covered regulations governing:

  • Training
  • Locomotive engineer skills examinations
  • Locomotive and conductor certification
  • Territorial qualifications

On Sept. 13, the SMART-TD National Legislative Department filed public comments in objection to the latest extension request, saying the following:
“It is hard for this Organization to grasp that the railroads are seriously concerned about the pandemic when they are doing little to nothing to prevent its spread. In fact, it seems they only want the CDC guidelines to apply where they might be most able to cut an operational corner, rather than provide a safe and sterile work environment,” National Legislative Director Greg Hynes wrote. “According to our applicable members: locomotive, crew room, and transport vehicle cleaning and sanitation has all but stopped (and has been for quite some time). Clearly, prevention of the spread of the virus has taken a back seat to waivers and relief from rules. Safety is either important or it isn’t. It doesn’t just apply here and there.”
FRA concurred with many of the points referred to by SMART-TD in its response, especially regarding training of new rail employees. The agency noted that carriers appeared to use the waivers of at least two rules for an intent outside the purpose originally sought. “FRA’s investigation of these concerns revealed that in numerous instances the railroads were utilizing this relief not to facilitate social distancing, but instead, out of administrative convenience,” FRA’s Karl Alexy wrote.
The SMART-TD National Legislative Office noted that the agency appears to be more responsive to safety concerns expressed by labor and commented on the renewed receptiveness the agency has displayed since the administration of President Joe Biden took charge at the beginning of the year.
“A change in leadership at FRA has made a difference,” National Legislative Director Greg Hynes said. “We thank Deputy Administrator Amit Bose for his agency’s thoughtful consideration of our input as they made a decision on the extensions.”
In the same response to AAR, FRA granted two other extensions to which the SMART-TD National Legislative Department did not object that covered quick tie-ups and locomotive engineer and conductor recertification timelines.
Last week, Bose appeared before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation regarding his nomination to become administrator of FRA. His nomination remains before the committee as additional written questions were posed by committee members and submitted to nominees after the Sept. 22 hearing.

During a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee hearing on the implementation of positive train control (PTC) among U.S. railroads Oct. 3, an Amtrak executive said that the carrier plans to continue operating the Southwest Chief passenger route through at least the 2019 fiscal year.
Amtrak Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Scot Naparstek told U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D) of New Mexico that the route, which various reports had said would get a 500-mile “bus bridge” from Dodge City, Kan., to Albuquerque, N.M., to avoid non-PTC trackage, would be operated as usual once the Dec. 31, 2018, PTC deadline passes.
Senators representing areas with stops on the route, including Udall, as well as rail passenger advocacy groups had been fighting this option. 
“We plan on running the Southwest Chief as-is through fiscal year 2019. We are well aware of the Senate’s directive,” Naparstek said. “We await Congress’s dealing with the Southwest Chief during the (budget) conference as well as in the fiscal spending bill.”
The president of the Rail Passengers Association was pleased with the outcome.
“This is a huge win for our association, for passengers, and for the states that rely on the Southwest Chief,” said Rail Passengers Association President Jim Mathews. “It shows that advocacy works, and I want to thank every person who took part in our campaign in defense of the national network. Now, we need to take that energy and turn it towards the coming reauthorization where we can make a positive vision for passenger rail in the U.S.: fast and frequent trains, 21st century equipment, and on-time service that passengers can count on.”
The Southwest Chief runs daily from Chicago to Los Angeles.


President Obama’s choice to lead the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has been approved by the Senate committee that handles transportation issues. 

Obama’s nomination of Sarah Feinberg, who has been leading the FRA since January, for a full-time term atop the rail agency was approved by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Tuesday in a 19-1 vote. 

Lawmakers on the panel said Feinberg deserves a shot at the full-time FRA chief position after handling multiple accidents since she became interim rail administrator earlier this year. 

Read more from The Hill.