BNSF slaps FRA on Positive Train Control safety

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has slammed the credibility of BNSF Railway's positive train control pilot projects, citing inconsistencies in BNSF's safety plan. The agency also complained that descriptive language explaining the railroad's compliance with FRA safety requirements was written in broad generalities that disguise numerous defects.

BNSF's Electronic Train Management System (ETMS) is one of the rudimentary positive train control technologies being tested under special FRA waivers from certain safety regulations. The BLET and the UTU support development of PTC systems, but only if they meet adequate federal safety requirements.

"PTC must be much more than hype," said BLET National President Don Hahs. "It must be rigorously analyzed and tested, and we applaud the FRA for requiring strict compliance with applicable regulations."

"These various experimental PTC systems are still in their infancy," said UTU International President Paul Thompson. "The FRA clearly is not satisfied with BNSF's safety plan for its ETMS, which reflects the carrier's reckless disregard for public safety."

Indeed, in a highly critical June 29 letter to the carrier (released July 10), the FRA said it no longer trusts the basic safety assumptions of BNSF's positive train control pilot projects. BNSF has been experimenting with ETMS on a small 115-mile subdivision in Illinois and is seeking permission from FRA to expand testing to line segments in Texas and Oklahoma, including routes used by Amtrak.

"These pilot projects have been used by BNSF as baubles to entice investors, the media and lawmakers to believe BNSF was advancing rapidly toward introduction of positive train control technology intended to replace experienced crew members," said UTU Alternate National Legislative Director James Stem. "The FRA exposed BNSF's smoke and mirrors approach and validated that BNSF and other railroads are years away, at best, from perfecting PTC to where it might be implemented safely."

BNSF sought - and failed to gain in February - FRA approval to operate the experimental ETMS technology with but a single crew person. The BLET, UTU, Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division and the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen opposed that BNSF request, telling the FRA that no trains should be permitted to operate with single-person crews until appropriate safety studies have been completed and regulations in place.

"The multiple safety functions of the second operating crew member are not replaced by ETMS," Stem said.

"The second crew member provides an important second set of eyes and ears, as validated by the FRA's Collision Analysis Working Group, which is on record that 'for freight trains, the conductor and engineer work as a team. One member points out situations that may have escaped the other's attention.'"

BLET's Director of Regulatory Affairs, Thomas Pontolillo, told the FRA that "the most effective positive train control is one that complements and supplements the work of today's two- or three-person train crew, and that PTC, as a means of further reducing crew size, will diminish - rather than enhance - safety."

BNSF is also having a major system-wide problem with the accuracy of train consists - lists of freight cars in a train, the length of each car, the contents of the car, the destination and the number of axels contained on the car. Such consists, required by federal regulations to be accurate, are used by operating crews and emergency responders to determine the exact location of hazmat. The FRA demanded BNSF solve the problems with the inaccurate consists.

BNSF had removed from trackside defect detectors the voice message, which gives operating crews a total axle count of each train. Instead of working to resolve this major safety issue, BNSF arrogantly removed the only source of information used by their crews to verify the accuracy of train consists.

With regard to ETMS, the FRA harshly criticized changes made by BNSF in its risk assessment methodology. FRA Deputy Associate Administrator Grady Cothen, speaking for FRA's safety board, said, "Upon being briefed on the status of the risk assessment, I became alarmed that it appears to rely heavily on the notion that risks that might be generated by the system would effectively never be realized because reliance by the locomotive engineer is forbidden."

"ETMS only encourages engineer reliance on a system that doesn't work as promised and does nothing to address the major problems of employee fatigue, lack of experience, and inadequate training," Stem said.

"Additionally, BNSF failed to include available technology system-wide to indicate to train crews the position of switches, which would prevent horrendous accidents such as one involving a deadly chlorine tank-car leak in Graniteville, S.C.," Stem said. "It is unconscionable that railroads, enjoying their highest profits in modern history, would continue to refuse to invest in switch monitors in dark territory."

To read the June 29 FRA letter to BNSF, left click on this link: (a high-speed connection is suggested; dial-up connections may not permit downloading because of the document's length.)



© 2006 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen