Seven remote control incidents documented since mid-March

UTU website defends remote technology; Blames its members -- 'human error' -- for causing accidents

A collision between a standing Union Pacific freight train and a remote controlled locomotive in Hinkle, Ore., is the most recent of seven accidents involving remote control technology in the past month.

One accident has occurred on CSX property, five on Union Pacific territories, and one at a power plant in Indiana.

The United Transportation Union has reported that its own members are to blame for these incidents, and not remote control technology. On May 2, UTU reported on its website that, "the accidents on CSX and UP (in Portland, Ore.) were caused by human error." In other words, the UTU has chosen to defend the integrity of remote control technology over its own dues-paying members. Thus far, only UTU members have operated remote control devices.

UTU is working closely with the nation's rail carriers to implement "pilot projects" using the new technology. By endorsing carrier reports that place the blame entirely on employees, the UTU is implicating its own members for causing these recent accidents.

"If the remote control technology itself is not to blame, then perhaps the carriers are not properly training employees to use the devices," said BLE President Don M. Hahs. "Regardless of what the carriers and the UTU believe, derailments and other incidents involving remote control locomotives have occurred. We believe it is important to document these incidents for the benefit and safety of the general public."

Hahs commented on the carrier and UTU assertion that "human error" was to blame in these incidents. "Perhaps if an experienced, certified locomotive engineer were operating the remote control devices as part of the crew, then maybe these accidents would not have occurred," he said. "The UTU shows its true colors by backing the carrier position that remote control technology played no role whatsoever in these recent incidents."

The seven remote control incidents are outlined as follows:

On April 24, a remote control switch engine ran into the side of a UP freight train that was leaving Des Moines, causing three rear cars of the freight train to derail. The collision caused significant damage to the switch engine and minor damage to the tracks.

The accident occurred in a switching area where the speed limit is less than 10 mph, and no injuries were reported. However, BLE sources at the scene estimate that damage was serious enough that the incident would have to be reported to the Federal Railroad Administration. Reportable incidents, as defined by FRA, are collisions, derailments or other incidents that cause a minimum of $6,600 in damage.

The UTU website reported that its own members are at fault for this incident and not remote control technology.

"The remote control unit worked properly... and the incident was blamed on a failure of the crew to properly line a crossover," according to a May 2 report on the UTU website. "At least one of the two crew members on the ground, as well as a utility employee riding the locomotive, knew the switch was not lined properly. The operator had a view of the switch, and the utility employee assumed that the other crew member would throw the switch, according to a source familiar with the incident. Instead, the train plowed into the side of the departing train."

On April 16 in Montgomery, Ala., a ground-service employee allegedly lost radio contact with the remote control switch engine he was operating. BLE sources say the remote control unit, which was in the process of adding 20 cars to a CSX freight, smashed into the rear of the train, derailing several cars and causing significant damage to the cars and tracks.

Once again, UTU laid the blame for this incident at the feet of one of its dues-paying members.

"Sources familiar with the incident say the operator stepped into a van while running the locomotive, and momentarily lost track of how close the cut of cars was to the train it was being coupled to," the UTU reported on its website.

On April 20 in Hinkle, Ore., a remote control UP locomotive with 15-20 cars collided with a standing set of yard engines at approximately 7 mph. The engineer of the stationary locomotives had just disembarked and was not injured. "Damage was minor according to company officials, but nonetheless a collision occurred," a BLE general chairman reported.

On April 28 in Hinkle, Ore., a set of remote control locomotives handling over 30 cars ran through a switch-point derail (with blue flag) and went past end-of-track derailing both locomotives. Local company officials refused to acknowledge the incident occurred, nor would they disclose the extent of damage. A photo of this incident is provided below.

On April 29 in Hinkle, Ore., another remote control locomotive rear-ended a standing cut of 32 cars, which had a locomotive attached at far end and an engineer at the controls. The engineer escaped serious injury. "Once again, local officials did not disclose damage, nor would they acknowledge the incident occurred even though impact happened in front of these same managers," the BLE General Chairman reported. "Witnesses say that the collision sounded like a bomb going off."

On May 5 in Hinkle, Ore., a remote control locomotive rolled over a switch point blue flag/ derail, at the same point as the April 29 derailment.

"This one has the record for furthest distance with one locomotive completely off the end of the rail," a BLE source said. "It traveled far enough to foul adjacent track."

In March, a remote control engine at a power plant in Michigan City, Ind., plowed through the plant and smashed into a manned locomotive. The engineer of the manned train narrowly avoided potential injury or death by jumping to safety.

The remote control engine was pushing six coal cars when it approached the coal drop-off area at about 30 mph. Normally, a train in that area would travel at less than 1 mph. Newspaper reports indicate the remotely controlled train did not respond to radio controls and smashed through the shed and coal rotary dumper before hitting the second train.

These accidents reinforce the BLE's assertion that more precaution and enforceable government regulations are necessary to the safe implementation of remote control technology.

"These incidents are part of the reason we felt it necessary to file suit against the Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration," President Hahs said. "The railroads are in such a hurry to implement remote control operations that safety is being compromised."

He said that instead of adopting mandatory regulations to ensure safety in remote control operations, FRA chose to issue non-mandatory "guidelines," which appear to have the effect of de-skilling the engineer's certification requirements.

This derailment of a remote control unit occurred on April 28 in Hinkle, Ore. Local UP officials insist the incident never happened.



© 2002 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers