Remote control locomotive collides with UP freight train

A remotely controlled locomotive (RCL) pulling dozens of freight cars collided with a Union Pacific freight train at UP's Fife Yard near Tacoma, Wash., on November 13 at approximately 9:45 a.m. Pacific time.

The remote control train side-swiped an inbound container train heading for the Port of Tacoma after having arrived from Chicago. The collision knocked two articulated cars loaded with shipping containers from the rail, and punctured the fuel tanks on each of the remote control locomotives. The accident prompted an emergency response by the Tacoma Fire Department, hazardous material experts from Union Pacific, and from outside contractors.

A preliminary investigation conducted by officials with Division 892 (Seattle) of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) revealed that the container train crew had received authorization to shove their train towards the interchange yard owned by Tacoma Rail, near the Port of Tacoma.

"The train was in the process of crossing over to the Tacoma Rail interchange track when the RCL job collided with it," said Thomas Frederick, Local Chairman of Division 892.

"They had shoved approximately 6,000 feet through the crossover already, so there can be no doubt that they had the right-of-way and prior authorization to make their movement." Frederick noted that the collision occurred on non-signaled yard trackage, with movements authorized by a local supervisor.

"This could have been much worse," Frederick continued. "As it is, preliminary estimates have 300 gallons of diesel fuel in the ground. We are less than one-fourth of a mile from the Puyallup River and about one mile from Puget Sound. If the RCL had collided with a tank car of chlorine or propane, this would have been a disaster of epic proportions."

Frederick credits the alertness of Engineer John Hesse, a member of BLET Division 892, for preventing a much bigger derailment.

"John saw the RCL coming at him on the adjacent track and stopped his train prior to the collision," Frederick said. "He also contacted the manager at Fife Yard and told them to contact the RCL crew to immediately stop their movement."

The accident could have been much worse, but it also could have been avoided.

"It is probable this incident would have been avoided with either an engineer in the cab, or one of the RCL operators riding the locomotive to protect the direction of the movement," said Dr. Mark Ricci, Chairman of the BLET Washington State Legislative Board. "We went before the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission seeking rules that would have required the railroads in Washington State to provide point protection. Our efforts have gone for naught, so far. I hope it doesn't take a major disaster to finally get the attention of the regulatory authorities. We got lucky this time, but our luck will soon run out."

Frederick indicated that the BLET investigation would also focus on whether a fail-safe system designed to stop an RCL before it encroached upon an improperly aligned switch was installed at the derailment site, and if so, whether it was functioning as intended. Frederick also indicated that investigators from the Federal Railroad Administration had been notified of the incident and asked to respond.


© 2005 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen