BNSF challenged on safety

Union members question railroad's commitment to safety following fatal Amtrak derailment on BNSF tracks in Nodaway, Iowa

Rail labor officials raised questions about general safety and maintenance on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway following a fatal Amtrak train derailment on BNSF tracks near Nodaway, Iowa, on March 18.

NTSB investigators are targeting a broken 16-foot temporary rail patch as the possible cause of the derailment, which killed one person and injured more than 90, three of them seriously. BNSF had installed the rail patch within the past month.

Raising concerns were officers of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes, whose members inspect and repair the rail lines.

"We have had a tremendous reduction in the number of maintenance of way forces, not only in that area but across the whole BNSF," Dave Joynt told the Omaha World-Herald newspaper. Brother Joynt is general chairman for BMWE members who work for Burlington Northern in Iowa, Nebraska and several other Midwestern and Western states.

He said 600 to 700 of the union's members in his region have been furloughed by the railroad, although thousands remain on the job.

"The railroads aren't doing so great," Joynt said. "Their stock's been down. They have made their reductions for economy reasons... They've cut some of the core section people who maintain these (rail) corridors throughout the winter."

Several BLE members who work in Iowa said when they first learned of the March 18 derailment, they knew right away it took place in Nodaway, even before the location had been revealed to them. They said they knew the piece of track in question was not safe, but refused to give their names for fear of retribution by front-line BNSF managers.

One BLE member said he reported the unsafe track to a BNSF roadmaster and advised it needed to be investigated. The BNSF roadmaster responded by stating that maybe it was the BLE member - and not the track - that needed the investigation.

"This type of harassment should have been eliminated through the SACP process," said BLE International President Edward Dubroski. "Unfortunately, the SACP process on that property has been disappointing, and we have begun receiving troubling reports that SOFA safety audits are being used as a disciplinary tool in some areas."

Ted Turpin, who is heading the National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the Amtrak derailment, said officials are trying to determine whether the temporary piece of rail caused the accident or whether it broke during the derailment.

He said the rail break occurred in a location where Burlington Northern had recently repaired the track because the old rail had a defect.

Fifteen cars on a freight train derailed near Stanton, Iowa, on Dec. 13, apparently because a welded piece of a switch failed, causing a train wheel to go off the track and derailing the cars, Hiatte said.

On New Year's Eve, part of a coal train derailed near Red Oak, Iowa, apparently because an overheated wheel bearing caused the wheel to fail and a coal car to drop down onto the road bed, he said.

A March 3 switching accident on the Burlington Northern in Willmar, Minn., claimed the life of a switchman, UTU member Terry Weyh.

 

2001 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers