The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has conducted a preliminary review of a request submitted on Aug. 10, 2023, by Genesee & Wyoming Inc. (G&W) subsidiaries Georgia Central Railway, L.P. (GC) and Heart of Georgia Railroad, Inc. (HOG) to pilot new zero-emission rail freight technology from Culver City-based Parallel Systems on portions of their rail lines.
FRA on Feb. 7 announced a March 12, 2024 public hearing “to allow interested persons the opportunity to provide comments on the petition.” The hearing will be held from 1 p.m. (ET) to 5 p.m. (ET) in Vidalia, Ga., and through one or more internet links. FRA also announced a 14-day extension of the comment period, to April 1, 2024, “to allow time for interested parties to submit comments on the petition or in response to views or information provided at the public hearing.” FRA said it will consider comments received after that date “to the extent practicable.”
The preliminary review determines whether the application meets the minimum regulatory requirements and provides enough information to be actionable by FRA. FRA says it has found the application complete; however, upon analyzing the request, FRA has decided to treat the application as a request for waivers of compliance under the relevant provisions of 49 CFR part 211. FRA will also review the request for a test program under 49 CFR 211.51 and will address the evaluation of the test program in a separate decision after it completes its review of the requested waivers.
According to FRA, GC and HOG assert that suspending (waiving) certain provisions of the Federal railroad safety regulations is “necessary for the conduct of the program,” and, accordingly, request that FRA “temporarily suspend certain provisions of the CFR throughout the program.” Specifically, GC and HOG request relief from specific regulatory requirements during each phase of testing, as listed in the table found here.
Recognizing that 49 CFR part 231 involves compliance with certain statutory requirements, GC and HOG also request that FRA “exercise its authority under 49 U.S.C. 20306 to exempt the rail equipment involved in the program from the requirements of 49 U.S.C. 20302, which, in part, requires rail equipment to be equipped with certain safety appliances (e.g., couplers, sill steps, hand brakes, grab irons, hand appliances, and power brakes).”
In accordance with 49 U.S.C. 20306, FRA may exempt GC and HOG from these statutory requirements based on evidence received and findings developed at a hearing demonstrating that the statutory requirements “preclude the development or implementation of more efficient railroad transportation equipment or other transportation innovations under existing law” or an “agreement between national railroad labor representatives and the developer of the new equipment or technology.”
FRA views the petition as consisting of “(1) a request for the temporary suspension of certain FRA regulations or waivers of compliance,” and “(2) a request for approval of a centralized test program that would utilize that requested relief.”
According to a release, GC and HOG “believe the development and anticipated adoption of this technology has the potential to capture new container business moving to and from the Port of Savannah, as well as reinvigorate traffic on rural lines and revive inland ports in Georgia—all while removing trucks from the region’s roads and reducing carbon emissions.”
If approved, GC and HOG say the multi-phased pilot would begin this year and be overseen by the FRA, G&W and Parallel Systems, allowing G&W and Parallel Systems to “demonstrate the technology in a field setting while using carefully developed protocols to ensure the pilot is operated in a safe, controlled manner.”
On Dec. 20, 2023, Parallel Systems released a video of its new autonomous battery-electric freight cars that showed them “successfully platooning,” or “connecting with one another through bumper-to-bumper contact,” at its Southern California test track.