On March 13, the FRA activated an emergency relief docket allowing the agency to waive certain regulations, including those that concern rail safety and wellbeing and fair treatment of employees. Subsequently, the FRA has received petitions from carriers claiming potential COVID-19 related reductions in staffing levels that make the regulatory relief necessary. These included a request from the Association of American Railroads, the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association and the American Public Transportation Association asserting that such regulations will “affect railroads’ ability to keep freight trains carrying critical goods and materials necessary for the country’s welfare.

In the wake of this, on April 9, in a letter to FRA Administrator Ronald Batory, a coalition of rail labor organizations, including the American Train Dispatchers Association, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers-Transportation Division, requested the FRA to ensure that freight carriers recall furloughed workers before seeking waivers from federal safety regulations. The unions stated that there “must be a strong burden of proof for rail carriers to demonstrate that there is a true labor shortage” before requesting waivers from certain regulations due to a COVID-19-related worker staffing shortage. “If a carrier finds itself short on active employees, its first option must be found in the abundant supply of out-of-work railroaders, not in administrative intervention to be exempted from safety-critical regulations,” the unions’ letter states.

If furloughed employees cannot return to work because they need retraining, the unions asked that the FRA offer them a temporary waiver from certain training requirements, provided that the workers meet those requirements within 60 days. Moreover, the unions asked the FRA to require rail carriers to report weekly on each individual regulatory waiver used, where and when it was used and a list of manpower shortages or other conditions that make the waiver necessary.