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NTSB issues safety recommendation on restricted speed after five rear-end collisions in 2011

CLEVELAND, March 5 — In the wake of five rear-end collisions in 2011, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has issued safety recommendations regarding the operation of freight trains at restricted speed. Two BLET members were killed in those accidents.

BLET National President Dennis R. Pierce defended operating crews in a March 2 letter to NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman. He encouraged the NTSB to consider other contributing factors instead of focusing solely on restricted speed during their ongoing investigations.

President Pierce also advised NTSB of carrier operating practices that put crews in jeopardy by placing profits ahead of safety. Also, he identified ways in which carrier officers harass and intimidate BLET members who operate “too slowly” at restricted speed — a dangerous practice that runs counter to the NTSB’s safety recommendations.

CONTRIBUTING FACTORS

According to preliminary investigations into the five accidents, the NTSB blamed crew members for going too fast and failing to operate their trains at the required restricted speed.

In his March 2 letter, President Pierce set the record straight. While thanking the NTSB for taking a proactive approach to rail safety, he advised the NTSB of other significant factors — as determined by the BLET’s Safety Task Force — that likely contributed to the accidents. He urged the NTSB to consider other factors rather than focusing on the single issue of restricted speed.

“The NTSB, the Federal Railroad Administration, and the railroad industry should keep in mind that railroading is a complex system of operations and simply laying blame at the feet of operating employees will not get to the root cause of these accidents nor will it prevent similar accidents in the future,” President Pierce wrote. “Indeed, everyone can — and should — go much further than simply conducting additional and burdensome compliance tests on operating crews.”

Regarding other contributing factors, President Pierce wrote: “(I)t should be noted that three of the five accidents occurred during the circadian trough, and the crew involved in the Red Oak accident was operating into the direction of a rising sun. Any experienced locomotive engineer or trainman can tell you that these particular operating environments pose an identifiable risk when operating at restricted speed.”

CARRIER HARASSMENT, INTIMIDATION

President Pierce also took rail carriers to task for implementing operating practices that run counter to the NTSB’s safety recommendations. For example, he noted a CSX plan to increase the maximum authorized speed from 15 mph to 20 mph for restricted speed operations.

He was also critical of front line rail managers for pressuring locomotive engineers to run trains faster while operating at restricted speed. Specifically, President Pierce advised NTSB of a BLET member employed by Norfolk Southern who is fighting to get his job back after being dismissed for allegedly operating “too slowly” while traveling at restricted speed.

“Individual railroads should halt current obscene practices that favor operational expediency over safety,” President Pierce wrote.

PROTECTING MEMBERS

To better protect BLET members, operating crews, and the traveling public, President Pierce suggested the FRA could get involved by issuing an Emergency Order to revise the definition of restricted speed.

In addition, he advised NTSB that the BLET may pursue a Petition for Rulemaking with FRA later this year that would amend the definition of restricted speed and reduce the authorized maximum speed for heavy tonnage trains to 10 mph.

President Pierce also said he is asking all subordinate BLET bodies to provide his office with information regarding practices that encourage crews to push the restricted speed envelope, and carrier harassment of BLET members when they elect to operate conservatively while traveling at restricted speed.

NTSB SAFETY RECOMMENDATIONS

Of the five safety recommendations issued by NTSB on January 12, one specifically targeted the BLET and United Transportation Union (UTU). The NTSB recommended that the unions: “Emphasize to your members the importance of operating their trains in accordance with restricted speed operating rules.”

Also, the NTSB asked the unions to: “Urge your members to work with their employers to identify the potential for similar occurrences and to take appropriate mitigating actions.”

In addition to BLET and UTU, the NTSB issued related recommendations to the Association of American Railroads, the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association.

ACCIDENT DETAILS; TWO BLET MEMBERS KILLED

The five accidents that prompted NTSB to issue its safety recommendations are as follows: Red Oak, Iowa, April 17, 2011; Low Moor, Va., May 21, 2011; Mineral Springs, N.C., May 24, 2011; DeWitt, N.Y., July 6, 2011; and DeKalb, Ind., August 19, 2011.

The accidents in Red Oak and Mineral Springs resulted in crew member fatalities and are still under investigation by the NTSB and the BLET Safety Task Force. The following is a summary of those accidents based on information available at this time:

• The Red Oak, Iowa, accident occurred on April 17, 2011, at approximately 6:55 a.m. CDT, when an eastbound BNSF coal train collided with the rear of a standing BNSF maintenance-of-way equipment train, with an impact speed of about 23 mph. The coal train had passed a red automatic block signal about 2 miles before the point of collision, which required the engineer to operate the train at restricted speed, not to exceed 20 mph. Mist was reported in the area at the time of the accident. The locomotive cab of the coal train was damaged and engulfed in a subsequent fire. Killed in the collision were Division 642 President Tom Anderson, 48, and his conductor.

• The Low Moor, Va., accident occurred at approximately 11:38 a.m. EDT on May 21, 2011. An eastbound CSX freight train collided with a stopped CSX freight train at a speed of 13 mph, about 170 miles west of Richmond, Virginia. No injuries as a result of the collision were reported, and a locomotive and one car derailed. The striking train was operating under a restricting signal indication, with a maximum authorized speed of 15 mph. However, it also was on descending a grade and had reached a speed of 21 mph prior to the accident.

• The Mineral Springs, N.C., accident occurred on May 24, 2011, at approximately 3:35 a.m. EDT, when one northbound CSX freight train struck the rear of another CSX freight train. The striking train was traveling about 48 mph at the time of the collision and subsequent fire, which killed 35-year old James G. Hadden, a member of Division 498, and his Conductor. The engineer and the conductor of the struck train also sustained minor injuries.

• The DeWitt, N.Y., accident occurred at 12:45 p.m. EDT on July 6, 2011, when one eastbound CSX freight train struck the rear of another CSX freight train. Both crewmembers on the striking train were transported to a local hospital, where they received medical attention and were released. This accident also led to the evacuation of the surrounding area, including several businesses, as well as the closure of nearby roads due to the large amount of diesel fuel that was spilled by the lead locomotive of the striking train.

• The DeKalb, Ind., accident occurred on August 19, 2011, at 5:44 a.m. CDT, when a westbound Norfolk Southern freight train struck the rear of a standing Norfolk Southern freight train. There were no injuries, but both tracks of the main line were blocked, delaying other freight traffic and scheduled Amtrak passenger service.

BLET ACTIONS

President Pierce advised the NTSB that he would be making BLET members aware of the rear-end collisions and the need to re-focus on operating at restricted speed. He assured NTSB that members would comply in a professional manner.

“I fully agree that operating trains in strict accordance with restricted speed operating rules is a job-saver and a life-saver,” he wrote. “BLET members work in one of the most safety-critical environments in the world, and their increased focus on restricted speed operations in light of these accidents is part of the professional performance of their duties that we intend to stress.”

In addition to postings on the National Division website, the BLET will be advising all General Committees of Adjustment and State Legislative Boards in writing regarding the details of the accidents as well as the NTSB safety recommendations.

IMPORTANT LINKS

BLET information provided to GCAs and SLBs (including NTSB’s safety recommendation R-11-10):
www.ble-t.org/pr/pdf/GC_SLB_NTSB_Restricted_Speed.pdf

Monday, March 5, 2012
bentley@ble-t.org

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