Pine Bluff remote control accident reinforces BLET’s safety concerns

CLEVELAND, July 16 -- A July 9 remote control accident in Pine Bluff, Ark., underscored a number of concerns the BLET shared with the Federal Railroad Administration during recent safety meetings in Washington, D.C.

A Union Pacific remote control job (K043 YT35 B36R) went through a control point on the Jonesboro Subdivision, crashing into the side of a train on mainline track that was carrying hazardous materials. The remote control unit hit the freight train on the mainline, derailing 11 cars. The remote control unit was pulling over 100 cars and was operated by two junior employees (both were recently employed in early 2004).

The accident happened in Pine Bluff, Ark., where the City Council had passed a safety resolution seeking to ban remote control train operations in February of 2003.

The accident highlighted several of the safety concerns the BLET has raised regarding the unregulated operation of remote control locomotives, including:

Lack of Training
Both employees were deemed “qualified” to operate remote control locomotives by Union Pacific but had relatively little railroad experience. One employee had only nine paid trips under his belt. In spite of their inexperience, Union Pacific managers assigned a trainee to work with the crew.

Safeguards Overridden
The accident happened on mainline track. The Union Pacific’s failsafe method to allow remote control movements without proper point protection is an automatic train stop system. Transponders known as a “puck,” cause remote control trains to slow or stop as they approach mainline tracks. In this case, the puck system was disabled — per instructions from Union Pacific management — allowing the remote control train to enter mainline track.

Efficiency Over Safety
According to reports from the field, the automatic train stop system was overridden in an effort to increase productivity of the remote control job.

Accident Reporting
According to reports the Union Pacific did not originally report this accident to the National Transportation Safety Board as a remote control accident. Nor was remote control reported to the local newspaper, which carried a story on the incident.

Hazardous Materials
The train on mainline track was carrying hazardous materials, and this accident could have resulted in a major hazmat spill.

Remote Control Ban
The city of Pine Bluff, Ark., was one of the first cities in the nation to pass a resolution banning remote control train operations. Citing many of the safety problems involved in the July 9 accident, the Pine Bluff City Council passed a resolution banning remote control train operations on February 18, 2003.

“This situation is absolutely disgraceful,” said BLET National President Don M. Hahs. “That remote control job was attached to over 100 cars; it was operated by raw recruits; safety controls were purposely overridden for productivity’s sake; hazardous materials were involved; and all of this happened in a city that had passed a safety resolution seeking to ban remote control train operations in the name of public safety.

“The BLET will continue in its pursuit of safe train operations throughout the United States, and will endeavor to ensure that accidents such as this are not swept under the rug.”

Friday, July 16, 2004

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