Runaway remote control locomotive derails on UP mainline

The derailment of a runaway remote control locomotive on the Union Pacific mainline outside of Blair, Neb., on December 19 underscored the concern of the BLE and others about the unregulated use of such technology.

The derailment occurred on a section of track owned by Union Pacific, but leased by Cargill. A switch engine and six cars carrying high fructose corn syrup caused over $400,000 in damages when it derailed approximately 2,000 feet from the Cameron ditch, which empties into the Missouri River.

The most alarming aspect of this incident is the fact that the runaway remote control engine derailed at a control point on the Union Pacific mainline. A runaway locomotive - in this case attached to over 30 cars and with no one at the controls on a mainline track - could have resulted in a much worse accident, or possibly death.

The remote operations were being handled by remote control manufacturer Canac, which was contracted by Cargill for rail services at its Blair plant. Canac testified as to the safety of its remote operations at a recent conference about such operations held by the FRA.

A Union Pacific spokesman said the railroad's investigators have determined that "human failure" caused the derailment of the remotely controlled unit. Cargill and Canac are continuing their investigations.

The FRA has conducted a preliminary investigation of the accident and a complete report is required to be filed under the provisions of the FRA's accidents/incidents reporting. This accident demonstrates the need for FRA regulations before another remote control locomotive goes into operation. Accidents, such as this one, could have a disastrous impact on train crews, residents in the area and the surrounding environment.

"Railroad operations do not always handle materials as innocuous as high fructose corn syrup. A similar accident involving hazardous materials could spell disaster for railroad workers, residents and workers in the area, and the environment in which we live," said BLE International President Edward Dubroski.

"This demonstrates the need for FRA to enact regulations governing remote control operations, and we will continue to monitor the investigation of this accident as part of our effort to ensure that this technology is made safe before it becomes more widely used."

2001 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers