A new Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) rule related to track safety standards clarifies the scope of FRA jurisdiction over plant railroads. For policy reasons, FRA historically has exempted plant railroads from the full scope of its safety regulations. However, if FRA determines that the plant railroad is offering rail services to other entities, the owner becomes part of the general railroad system of transportation that is subject to FRA regulation. Because some plant railroad owners mistakenly have believed their operations were exempt from regulation, FRA determined to clarify the definition of a plant railroad that is exempt from regulation. The updated definition may surprise some private track owners who believe their intraplant operations are not within the scope of FRA’s jurisdiction, especially those who provide switching services to neighboring facilities or other third parties.
The new definition was published in the January 24, 2014 Federal Register as part of a broader rulemaking on track safety standards. Track, Safety Standards, 79 Fed. Reg. 4234,4241 (Jan. 24, 2014) (to be codified at 49 CFR pt. 213). The original definition of plant railroads was “railroads whose entire operations are confined to an industrial installation.” 49 CFR § 209 App A (2012). FRA’s clarification adds that a private track owner who allows a “locomotive to move rail cars in service for other entities, rather than solely for its own purposes or industrial processes” becomes part of the general railroad system of transportation. According to FRA, this is not an expansion of its jurisdiction, but rather a clarification of its longstanding policy to address some private track owners’ mistaken belief that their facilities were not subject to FRA regulation.
FRA offers two examples as guidance. First, a railroad operating in a steel mill whose entire operations are confined to the plant’s boundaries and that does not offer rail service to other entities is defined as a plant railroad not subject to FRA regulation. This example assumes the mill owner is only using its track for its own industrial purposes and its locomotives are not leaving the plant and operating over another owner’s FRA regulated track. If the locomotives are owned and operated by a railroad, the railroad may not provide service to any other shippers on the private track for the track owner to maintain private track status.
In a second example from 2011 case law, a port that leased space on its property to tenants and provided railroad switching services to those tenants using its own locomotives was subject to FRA jurisdiction because it offered a service that was public in nature. Port of Shreveport-Bossier v. Federal Railroad Administration (5th Cir. 2011) (unpublished per curiam opinion). FRA explains that services that are public in nature represent the interchange of goods and therefore justifies its regulation of the track owner.
In addition to the new track safety regulations published as part of this rule, other FRA rules and regulations that may apply to private track owners under the clarified definition include workplace safety standards, accident and incident reporting standards, hours of service restrictions, drug and alcohol testing, locomotive safety standards, and locomotive engineer qualification and certification requirements. 49 CFR Parts 200-299.