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U.S. and CANADIAN DEVELOPMENTS
Photo courtesy the New York Post.
FRA EMERGENCY RELIEF DOCKET: Under Federal Railroad Administration regulations, each year FRA creates an Emergency Relief Docket (ERD) in the publicly accessible Department of Transportation docket system (49 CFR 211.45). The ERD for calendar year 2020 is FRA-2020-0002.
On March 13, 2020, FRA Administrator Ron Batory determined that “the imminent threat and exposure to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) poses a risk of serious illness that constitutes an ‘emergency situation’ as related to railroad operations. Therefore, the Administrator has activated the Emergency Relief Docket (FRA-2020-0002). Notice of the Administrator’s declaration and ERD activation is posted on FRA’s website and in docket no. FRA-2020-0002 on http://www.regulations.gov.”
“This message is to ensure everyone has a clear understanding of the emergency waiver process and provide you with a copy of the ERD,” Batory said in a notice to employees. “When the FRA Administrator (or his/her designee) determines that an emergency event or situation exists or is imminent, 49 CFR 211.45 authorizes the Administrator to activate the docket, and railroads may then request relief from FRA regulations related to the emergency. Such requests for relief must address how the request relates to the emergency and, at a minimum, specify (1) how the petitioner or public is affected by the emergency; (2) what FRA regulations are implicated; (3) how waiver of the implicated regulations would benefit the petitioner during the emergency; and (4) how long the petitioner expects to be affected by the emergency. FRA’s Railroad Safety Board will consider any waiver requests submitted to the ERD under the expedited procedures of 49 CFR 211.45 and any relief granted will not exceed 60 days.
“FRA is standing by to review and process any waiver submissions as quickly as possible and in accordance with the requirements of 49 CFR 211.45. In making this determination, the Administrator notes the President has declared a national emergency related to COVID-19 and the World Health Organization (WHO) has made the assessment of COVID-19 and it is now characterized as pandemic, which can cause serious illness to high-risk populations. Governors of several States have issued various Emergency Declarations related to COVID-19 outbreaks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported more than 1,600 cases across 46 States and the number of cases of this respiratory illness is expected to increase.”
FEDERAL TRANSIT ADMINISTRATION: Expanded eligibility of federal assistance is available under FTA’s Emergency Relief Program to help transit agencies respond to COVID-19 in states where the Governor has declared an emergency. This includes allowing all transit providers, including those in large urban areas, to use federal formula funds for emergency-related capital and operating expenses, and raises the cap on the federal government’s share of those expenses, and permitting those expenses to be covered at an 80% federal share rather than 50%.
In addition to allowing the expanded use of formula funds for transit providers, FTA has established an Emergency Relief docket that allows transit providers in states where the Governor has declared an emergency related to COVID-19 to request temporary relief from Federal requirements under 49 U.S.C. Chapter 53 as well as any non-statutory FTA requirements.
“Today, I have issued a notice of concurrence with declarations of emergencies issued by Governors that relate to COVID-19. FTA grantees may now use their Urbanized Area and Rural formula funds to take measures to protect the health and safety of their riders and their workforce,” said FTA Acting Administrator K. Jane Williams. “Expansion of the permissible uses of federal funds will allow transit providers greater flexibility in the areas of the country that need it most. Invoking the eligibility of the Emergency Relief Program also provide funds at a higher federal share.”
AMTRAK: A Saturday schedule is in effect on several routes. “We continue to monitor the coronavirus situation closely and we are taking action based on guidance from public health experts; that includes restoring service to trains and routes once demand returns,” Amtrak said in a service bulletin. While Amtrak continues to operate, in order to maintain a safe environment and address customer concerns and potential business impact, we have modified schedules to the following services due to reduced demand:
“Minor additional schedule adjustments may be made during this time. Customers with reservations on trains that are being modified will typically be accommodated on trains with similar departure times or another day. Amtrak will gladly waive additional charges for customers looking to change their reservation during the modified schedule by calling our reservation center at 800-USA-RAIL. Anyone planning to travel should check their train status on Amtrak.com or our smartphone apps prior to departing, allow extra time to get to the station. Be extremely careful in stations and on platforms.”
Amtrak said it is stepping up cleaning. New protocols include more frequent (in some cases hourly) cleaning of trains and stations. Amtrak crews are wiping handrails, doorknobs, handles and surfaces, and the railroad is making hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes available to passengers and workers aboard trains and in stations.
Amtrak trains are operating half-empty, cancellations are up 300%, and future bookings are down 50%, according to a Washington Post report. If this continues, revenue losses could be in the “several hundred million dollars,” prompting aggressive cost-reduction measures that include service cuts and “voluntary unpaid leave,” Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Operating and Commercial Officer Stephen Gardner said in a March 11 memo to Amtrak employees.
“At this rate, we believe we will likely suffer the loss of several hundred million dollars in revenue during this fiscal year — and we might lose more,” Gardner said. “You should expect significant reductions in train service across portions of our network in response to the sharp drop in ridership. Shortly, we will begin rolling out our voluntary leave program for those non-mission critical employees that are willing to take time off on an unpaid basis.”
VIA RAIL CANADA: In light of the recent measures being taken to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, VIA Rail’s overnight trains (Toronto-Vancouver Canadian and Montreal-Halifax Ocean) have been cancelled beginning March 13, 2020. These trains will not be operating from March 13 to March 27 inclusively, with the possibility of extension. Via Rail is not permitting Amtrak’s Maple Leaf and Adirondack to cross the border.
NJ TRANSIT: Following the lead of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), New Jersey Transit is stepping up preventive measures. NJT has formed a task force that will meet regularly and share the latest information from state and federal health officials. The task force consists of representatives from medical, emergency management, environmental, safety and communications departments. Like the MTA, NJ Transit is disinfecting its stations and railcars. “NJ Transit Rail, Bus, Light Rail and Access Link will enhance current cleaning procedures to augment our daily current practices and additional disinfection regimens,” the agency said in a statement.
MBTA employees clean TVMs at Government Center station. Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe.
CALIFORNIA: Caltrain and VTA (Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority) have made cutbacks in service. Caltrain has cancelled Baby Bullet service between San Francisco and San Jose during the morning and afternoon rush hour. There has been a 75% drop in one-way Caltrain ridership. Meanwhile, school closings have VTA cutting public transit centered around serving school children. VTA will run single-car light rail trains instead of two- or three-car trains. Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) also has been experiencing a ridership drop, but is still running at full capacity. Officials at BART, Caltrain and VTA said more cuts in service could be in store, and BART has plans to shut down its system entirely if necessary.
WASHINGTON STATE was the first region hit hard by the coronavirus, and Sound Transit, which includes Link light rail and Sounder commuter rail, were the first transit agencies in the U.S. to feel the impact of the disease. There were 25% fewer riders in February 2020 compared to January 2020, and between March 2 and March 9 there was another 15% decline.
WMATA: The Washington, D.C., Metrorail system is expected to implement service cuts after it carried 100,000 fewer riders on March 11, compared to March 4.
RAIL LABOR: The two unions representing T&ES (Train & Engine Service) employees—the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the SMART-Transportation Division—sent a letter, signed by BLET President Dennis Pierce and SMART-TD President Jeremy R. Ferguson, to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) “urging [issuance of] guidelines directed toward U.S. rail carriers, employees and passengers, pertaining to, at minimum:
Additionally, Pierce sent a similar letter to the National Railway Labor Conference, the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) and the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). Regarding sanitation, BLET wants railroads to supply hand sanitizer and wipes that contain 60-90% isopropyl alcohol. Wipes also should carry chlorhexidine gluconate (4%) and benzethonium chloride (0.5%).
FRA responded to the BLET/SMART-TD letter by saying that it “has taken a whole-of-government approach that has paved the way for a whole-of-America response, with the CDC being the appropriate governmental source for guidance on COVID-19.”
June 20, 2019: BLET President Dennis Pierce testifies before the House Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure about two-person crews. BLET photo.
Commenting on the BLET/SMART-TD letter, Railway Age Capitol Hill Contributing Editor Frank N. Wilner noted that the FRA “has no authority in this area,” and that because the letter was not sent to the railroads, it “perhaps was intended to avoid a quid pro quo response from the carriers—the trade being authority to institute one-person crew operations that the two unions are refusing to consider at the bargaining table.”
APTA: The organization has cancelled its Legislative Conference, scheduled to take place in Washington, D.C. from March 15-17. APTA said it “continues to monitor federal legislative action and its impact on public transportation on behalf of the industry. The association is considering alternatives and potential avenues through which to reschedule, relocate or redesign this conference for later in 2020. APTA’s top priority is the health and safety of our members and the health and safety of the communities they serve. This decision allows public transportation leaders to stay in their communities where they can focus on the health and safety of their riders and employees while continuing to provide safe and efficient transportation for the millions of Americans who rely on public transit.”
A Missouri woman who tested positive for the coronavirus traveled by Amtrak on March 4 from Chicago to St. Louis. Photo courtesy KQ2.com.
Numerous railway industry events overseas have been postponed or cancelled as organizers respond to the restrictions being placed on large gatherings of people to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. As well, the UIC (International Union of Railways) has formed a task force to assist operators in dealing with the rapidly escalating situation, and several overseas train operators have instituted aggressive measures, including more stringent train cleaning, steps to protect staff, ticket refunds without penalty and cancellation of services.
MTR is deploying 20 Vaporized Hydrogen Peroxide (VHP) robots.
Staff in protective suits spray disinfectant on an LRT vehicle after Indonesia confirmed new cases of COVID-19 in Palembang, South Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo by Antara Foto/NovaWahyudi/via Reuters.
“Nobody ever lost a dime underestimating the intelligence of the American public,” comments one industry observer, who shared this obviously doctored photo with Railway Age:
In the U.S., railroad freight cars bear reporting marks assigned by the Association of American Railroads that consist of two to four letters followed by a number of up to six digits and indicate ownership of the car. COVID-19 is not a designation that conforms to any legitimate reporting mark, nor to any other standard form of marking or identification one would find on a railroad tank car. If some entity were actually engaged in a conspiratorial, furtive spreading of a disease-causing virus, they’d be storing it in special containers packed in unmarked crates and loaded onto ordinary boxcars or containers, not transporting it via plainly labeled tank cars. A tank car labeled COVID-19 makes no sense, as COVID-19 is not a term that identifies a virus or any other physical material that can be transported by rail or other means. COVID-19 is the name of the coronavirus disease caused by a particular virus, so a tank car marked to display that it is carrying COVID-19 would be akin to a package bearing a label indicating that it contained DIABETES. In furtherance of an alleged conspiracy to spread the COVID-19 illness, the tank car would be carrying not COVID-19 but the virus known as “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2,” or SARS-CoV-2 for short. This image is a mildly amusing digital manipulation, but nothing more. Source: Snopes.com.
Reporting and analysis by David Briginshaw (IRJ), David Burroughs (IRJ), Andrew Corselli (Railway Age), Kevin Smith (IRJ), David Lester (RT&S), William C. Vantuono (Railway Age) and Bill Wilson (RT&S); plus Railway Age Capitol Hill Contributing Editor Frank N. Wilner.
The post S-B Rail Group Staff Report: UPDATED MARCH 15—Global Railway Industry Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic appeared first on Railway Age.
This article first appeared on www.railwayage.com
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