Freight Rail News Briefs

Union Pacific stuck in the mud

The Union Pacific Corp. said its capacity to move freight to and from West Coast ports will be cut by a third "for an extended period" after mudslides and flooding severed the railroad's main artery to the Midwest.

The railroad has effectively embargoed all new cargo while it deals with the track outages in the mountains east of Las Vegas, forcing shippers to seek alternative routes for everything from fresh fruit to parts for just-in-time assembly lines.

At one point, four of the railroad's five rail lines in the Los Angeles area had been severed as a result of flooding and landslides associated with the storms that have pounded Southern California.

By January 13, however, the railroad said only two lines remained shut down - the mainline to the Midwest and the coastal mainline north of Los Angeles that passes through La Conchita, where 10 people died in a mudslide.

"We are facing great challenges in the wake of this severe weather in the West," said Dick Davidson, UP's chairman and chief executive. Davidson said he did not know when service would be restored on the two lines.

Because Union Pacific handles roughly half the rail traffic out of California, the disruption could threaten the state's farmers, shippers in the Midwest and the Port of Long Beach, where goods imported from Asia already are stacked up on docks awaiting shipment, economists said.

Union Pacific spokesman John Bromley said the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co., which also operates a mainline from Long Beach to the Midwest and did not suffer any track damage, is permitting the Union Pacific to operate some trains on its tracks. Other trains will be rerouted, probably through Texas.

Union Pacific has suffered the most damage because its tracks are higher in elevation than Burlington Northern's and were first to be hit by mudslides, Bromley said. The damage was made worse, he said, because "the slides have occurred in areas where we've had all the forest fires, and the ground cover was burned off."

The disruption is the latest that the Union Pacific has had to deal with in the past decade. In the late 1990s, service virtually was shut down as a result of struggles from combining operations with the Southern Pacific Railroad after a merger. In the past few years, the railroad has faced crew shortages, as employees opted for early retirement programs.

(From the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and other news wire services.)

NS wreck kills nine in Graniteville, S.C.

In one of the worst hazardous materials spills in 30 years, nine people were killed and more than 200 hospitalized when a Norfolk Southern derailment in Graniteville, S.C., on January 5. The town's 5,000 residents were forced to evacuate after a cloud of toxic chlorine gas was released during the accident.

The accident was thought to be the country's worst chemical train wreck since 1978, when 15 people were killed in Waverly, Tenn.

Included in the dead is BLET member Christopher Seeling, 28, Secretary-Treasurer of BLET Division 85 in Columbia, S.C. (see obituary on page 5).

Brother Seeling's 42-car freight train, en route from Macon, Ga., to Columbia, S.C., was diverted into a siding in Graniteville where it collided with a parked train. The National Transportation Safety Board's investigation focused on the crew of the parked train and if the crew was distracted or fatigued and failed to reset the switch. Members of the BLET's Safety Task Force were on hand to assist the NTSB in its investigation.

As a result of the crash, the Federal Railroad Administration issued a new safety recommendation to railroads regarding manual switches. In it, the FRA suggests that rail companies make sure their rules require train crews who handle hand-operated switches to advise a dispatcher after they restore track switches to their normal position.

The FRA also said a train's conductor and engineer should sign a form saying they know in what position they left the switch.

(Information for this report compiled from The State (Columbia, S.C.), and the Associated Press.)



© 2005 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen