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BLET insists use of remote control imperils safety

(The Toledo Blade posted the following article by David Patch on its website on March 12.)

TOLEDO, Ohio -- Local railroads’ continued use of remote-control locomotives poses an ongoing public safety threat, in terms of pedestrian and vehicular safety and the potential for accidents or sabotage, members of a railroad labor union told Toledo officials yesterday.

Of particular concern is a Norfolk Southern Corp. train that switches tank cars of petrochemicals at the Sunoco refinery on the Toledo-Oregon border.

"If something happens over there, a lot of people could be killed by this stuff before they even know what’s happening," Rodney Cutlip, a Norfolk Southern engineer, told an audience in Government Center that included Toledo Councilman Bob McCloskey; Jay Black, Jr., the city’s chief operating officer, and Bill Franklin, the city’s assistant chief operating officer.

Don Rozick, a fellow member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, said the unmanned locomotive poses an even more immediate threat to people who, whether or not they’re supposed to, may walk along or cross the tracks unsafely and assume there’s an engineer on board looking out for them.

While CSX has posted prominent signs at its yards where remote control is in use, Mr. Rozick said, warning signs in Norfolk Southern areas are tiny and thus hard to read, particularly from a moving vehicle. A crossing of Navarre Avenue that is the closest to the refinery’s rail entrance has warning lights and gates but no remote-control warning signs.

Norfolk Southern spokesman Rudy Husband said company policy is that an employee must be in a position to watch the forward end of any remotely controlled movement. He denied the union allegation that the policy is routinely violated, and said according to federal remote-control guidelines, warning signs aren’t required if "other effective means" of protection are provided.

Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Warren Flatau said the union’s charge that remote-control employees are not watching where their trains are going "is a serious allegation" that will be investigated. And while the railroad administration has been monitoring remote control closely since its widespread introduction two years ago, Mr. Flatau said, a safety audit requested by top members of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee has begun.

Gary Sease, a spokesman for CSX, said his company’s employees also are required to watch the forward part of any remotely controlled movement except in designated "remote-control zones." So far, CSX has confined its Toledo-area remote operations to switching yards in Lake Township.

The meeting followed by two days City Council’s approval of a resolution objecting to remote-control locomotive operations within Toledo’s limits. The resolution calls on railroads to operate such engines only after notifying the mayor, only using qualified engineers, and never handling or operating near cars loaded with hazardous materials.

In so doing, council stepped into a controversy brewing for more than two years over U.S. railroads’ use of remote control, and, in particular, a dispute over which of two unions’ members control the trains under such circumstances.

A 2001 agreement between five major railroads and the United Transportation Union that gave its members the right to operate remote-control trains riled the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, which maintains that only its members have been trained adequately to operate locomotives.

But an arbitrator upheld the pact with the UTU, which primarily represents train conductors. Major U.S. railroads began using remote-control engines, primarily for yard switching, about two years ago.

The engineers union has kept an accident list since then involving remote control, and passed a resolution this week stating that the record has proven that remote control is not being deployed safely.

The council resolution’s language resembles that of similar measures passed in other cities at the engineers union’s urging.

Mr. McCloskey, whose East Toledo district includes the tracks used by the refinery run and several other major rail routes, said he sponsored the resolution because of mounting complaints about remote-control safety, and especially the refinery train. The refinery train is the only current use of remote control within the city.

Friday, March 12, 2004

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