Ninth Circuit Ruling Rejects FRA’s Attempt
to Preempt State Crew Size Law
CLEVELAND, Ohio (Feb. 23, 2021) — Two of the country’s largest freight railroad unions achieved a favorable decision in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday regarding an attempt by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to preempt legislation passed by a number of states that established a minimum of two-person operating crews on freight trains.
The case, brought by the states of California, Washington and Nevada and by the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers — Transportation Division (SMART-TD) and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), challenged former FRA Administrator Ron Batory’s attempt to cancel the laws of those and other states while at the same time attempting to authorize nationwide one-person crews. The unions and states argued that Batory’s May 2019 order violated the comment-and-notice procedures of Administrative Procedures Act (APA) and that his agency could not implicitly preempt the state safety rules.
The Court of Appeals ruled that FRA’s order was “arbitrary and capricious,” taking particular note that the assertions by FRA and the rail carriers that reducing the number of crew members in the cab to one person could improve safety “did not withstand scrutiny” and “was lacking.” The court also criticized the order as not being a “logical outgrowth” of the two-person crew proposal, because “[t]here was nothing in the [proposed regulation] to put a person on notice that the FRA might adopt a national one-person crew limit.”
The court chided FRA for basing its negative preemption decision on “an economic rationale” instead of its main obligation — safety.