Neighborhood evacuated after remote control hazmat spill

A remote control train wreck in East St. Louis on September 21 is one of several serious remote control accidents in recent weeks, heightening concerns about the lack of enforceable federal regulations to ensure the safety of these operations.

At 3:30 a.m. on September 21, a remote control locomotive was in use when four train cars went off the tracks at an East St. Louis area rail yard, resulting in a major hazardous materials release and possibly sickening 75 people at a nearby high school. Approximately 140 people living in the nearby neighborhood were evacuated from their homes as a result of the hazmat release.

According to BLET National President Don Hahs, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) were unaware that remote control was involved in the East St. Louis accident until notified by the BLET.

The BLET Safety Task Force received party status from the NTSB to assist in the accident investigation.

"How many more derailments, hazmat spills, near misses, and employee fatalities must we endure before the Federal Railroad Administration develops enforceable federal regulations?" President Hahs asked. "The BLET does not oppose this technology, but had hoped to prohibit its use until enforceable federal safety regulations were put in place. The current rash of accidents, coupled with the fact that some are not being reported to the FRA and NTSB, is the result of new technology being deployed without adequate federal safety standards."

In the absence of federal safety regulations, the BLET is working with Congressman Gene Green (D-TX) to pass legislation that would prevent the use of remote control locomotives in the transportation of rail cars containing hazardous materials. The bill number is H.R. 5119.

The nation's major railroads, along with the leadership of a union not affiliated with the AFL-CIO, began implementing remote control train operations in 2002. These operations began under "recommended guidelines" issued by the FRA, which are unenforceable in the protection of worker safety. The BLET petitioned the FRA for enforceable guidelines in November of 2000.

A fatal remote control train accident took place on September 2 when BLET member Glen "Skip" York II, 26, was killed while working as a remote control operator at the Burlington Northern Santa Fe yard in Clovis, N.M.

On July 9, the Union Pacific Railroad failed to report a major remote control accident to the NTSB that happened in Pine Bluff, Ark.

On October 6, a man lost an arm in a remote control accident at the Cenex Harvest States' soybean processing plant in Fairmont, Minn. The local newspaper, the Fairmont Sentinel, reported that "Jeffrey Allen Heupel was injured while operating one of the plant's rail engines when the remote system malfunctioned... he was using the remote to move the engine and the engine was not stopping."

Sixty-one communities in the United States have adopted remote control safety resolutions that call upon the FRA to conduct a thorough of the safety of remote control train operations and to adopt enforceable federal safety regulations to ensure the safety of the technology.

 

 

© 2004 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen