Congress first enacted the Railroad Hours of Service Act in 1907, reacting to concerns that the long hours train operators and other railroad employees worked produced dangerous levels of fatigue. The law aims to promote the welfare of workers and the public alike by setting maximum consecutive hours railroad employees can work, along with minimum periods of rest in between.

Train, Signal and Dispatching Services

The Hours of Service Act applies to three types of railroad employees, all of whom are involved to some degree in the movement of trains. The law limits shifts for train engineers, conductors and other crew members who control the train itself. Those who install and maintain the signaling systems that guide and warn trains also are subject to the federal law. Employees of dispatching services that send orders and reports to trains on the track are the third category of workers covered by the Hours of Service Act. The original Hours of Service Act only applied to individuals employed directly by railroad carriers. The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 amended the original law to include employees of contractors and subcontractors with the same job duties.

Maximum Hours of Service

Generally, the Hours of Service Act limits railroad employees to shifts of 12 hours a day. In any given 24-hour period, the law requires an undisturbed rest period of 10 hours between shifts. If the carrier or employer contacts an employee, the law considers that a disturbance, and the 10-hour clock restarts. Additionally, employees cannot work more than six days in a row. The Rail Safety Improvement Act empowered the Federal Railroad Administration to establish specific rules governing the hours of service for employees of commuter and intercity passenger trains. While these regulations follow similar maximum hours as those for all trains, the FRA requires these passenger train carriers to submit schedules for FRA approval every two years. The FRA regulations also require carriers to use FRA-approved tools for fatigue mitigation.

Reporting and Recordkeeping

The Hours of Service Act authorizes the FRA to establish regulations for carriers to maintain records of the hours their employees work and report these to the Department of Transportation. Ultimately, the carrier or other contractor is responsible for ensuring employees do not violate federal law. The law penalizes the employer if an employee works beyond the limit established. The FRA requires carriers to keep either manual or electronic records of each employee's hours of service. Daily time sheets must be signed by the employee and kept by the employer for at least two years.

Penalties for Violation

Following the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, commuter and intercity passenger train violations of the hours of service restrictions are subject to somewhat heavier fines than other trains. Carriers with employees in violation pay civil fines of between $650 and $25,000 per violation. If the FRA finds evidence of a pattern of repeated violations that creates a potentially dangerous situation for employees or passengers, the fine increases to as much as $105,000 per violation. Anyone who knowingly falsifies a report or record in an attempt to cover up a violation, or intentionally violates the hours of service laws and regulations, may be subject to criminal penalties including additional fines and up to two years in prison. For all other trains, hours of service violations can result in a fine of between $500 and $25,000 per violation. Patterns of repeated violations may result in fines of $100,000 per incident.