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Regulators Set Minimum Crew Size

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The nation’s top rail regulator has confirmed that the Federal Railroad Administration is on track to issue a proposed rulemaking this fall on one-person train crews, including minimum requirements depending on the type of rail operation.

Testifying at his nomination hearing to fill the vacant FRA administrator post, Amit Bose, currently deputy administrator, told senate lawmakers that one of the reasons the agency is moving forward on the issue is that “if there is not a rulemaking then we believe that states would have a patchwork of laws” regulating train crew sizes.

Bose added: “We are going to look at the potential safety impact of crew size on train operations and make sure there is a reason to do it. We’ll go through the [proposed rulemaking] process, and there will be input from the industry and other stakeholders.”

In May 2019, FRA withdrew a notice of proposed rulemaking that would have set guidelines for crew staffing in freight operations and ordered that the withdrawal pre-empt all state laws attempting to regulate train crew staffing in any manner.

In February of this year, however, a federal appeals court vacated FRA’s order, ruling that the agency did not undergo an adequate public review process prior to issuing it. The court’s decision disappointed rail operators but was praised by rail labor unions.

In between the 2019 order and the appeals court decision, a handful of states either passed or proposed two-crew minimum regulations, asserting the requirements are needed to improve safety and reduce the risk of accidents.

Bose was asked during the hearing about the use of automation technology in the rail industry, specifically with regard to track inspections.

“Sometimes when innovative approaches are suggested, they run up against regulations which favor the old way,” said senator Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi. “If confirmed, I hope you’ll continue a forward-thinking approach to providing regulatory relief and consideration to test programs that could demonstrate how new technologies can improve safety.”

Bose responded that FRA makes it a point to keep up with technology changes through its Office of Railroads Systems and Technology.

“We’re absolutely aware that we have to give careful consideration to waivers and make sure they’re in the public interest and are consistent with rail safety,” he said. “And when you’re talking about track inspections and testing programs, those exist right now and are ongoing, and we want to see the results from those.”

Bose also committed to looking into a request by senator Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, to expand Alaska Railroad’s authorization for transporting 40-foot tanks of liquefied natural gas (LNG) on railroad flatcars. Authority to move the containers from Alaska refineries to the interior of the state was granted in 2015, but the railroad’s request to expand the authorization to include “commercially viable” shipments has languished for ten months, Sullivan said.

“We were working with the railroads and thought we had addressed what their peak demand was going to be, but we will look at that and talk to them again,” Bose responded. “The Alaska Railroad has a productive relationship with FRA and we want to continue that.”

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