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Incident spotlights rail security gaps

(The following story by Teresa Wickens appeared on The North Platte Telegraph website on December 8.)

NORTH PLATTE, Neb. -- Railroad officials commented Wednesday on a Nov. 11 incident in which two men allegedly climbed aboard a Burlington Northern-Santa Fe locomotive and moved it 40 feet down the tracks.

"Moving a train is no laughing matter," a Union Pacific spokesman said Wednesday. "It's not just a prank.''

Mark Davis said that an unauthorized person who moves a train would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Davis is the regional public relations director for UP.

The incident in November near Thedford resulted in two North Platte men being charged with felony criminal mischief. The maximum punishment is five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Davis did not know if the locomotive involved was idling or turned off, but he said the engines are commonly left running if the temperatures will be below 40 degrees.

According to a spokesman from BNSF, it is not unusual for trains to be left idling, "especially in cold weather."

Davis said diesel fuel can "gel up," and water lines can freeze, damaging the locomotive.

"Newer locomotives have a sensor that will turn the engine on if the temperature drops below a set number," he said.

Although he didn't know what the particulars were in the Thomas County case, BNSF General Director of Public Relations Steve Forsberg said, "If a train is left idling and unoccupied, then the crew has measures it takes to prevent the train from being moved forward or backward."

For security reasons, neither Davis nor Forsberg would describe what those measures are, but Forsberg said normally, the train could not be put into gear.

Davis also said that even before the terrorist attacks in 2001, the railroad industry was looking at ways to lock cabs, but not interfere with the crew's ability to leave the train in an emergency.

"We want a device that will function safely, that will lock the door, but it has to be compatible throughout the train industry," he said.
Davis added that trains go across the United States, so many different engine crews need to be able to get into the locomotive, making it difficult to come up with a locking system.

Right now, Davis said there is no device that will do that, "but we keep looking."

Forsberg didn't say how BNSF discovered the train had been moved, but said, "Most likely a crew had gone out to move it and noticed it wasn't in the same place they'd left it."

Davis said moving a train without authorization violates not just railroad safety rules and operating procedures, but "there are also federal laws violated."

In Davis' opinion, it would be difficult for someone to just get into a cab and put the train in motion.

"In the 25 years I've been here, there has been one instance of unauthorized movement," Davis said.

Union Pacific takes train safety seriously, according to Davis.

"A person who does this endangers not just their community, but railroad employees and interferes with interstate commerce," he said.

"The rail industry will prosecute them to the fullest extent allowed," Davis said.

Thursday, December 8, 2005

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