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Rail News: Safety

UP notes lower derailment rate; NTSB cites alertness device concerns


A sharper focus on training and technology upgrades helped Union Pacific Railroad improve a key safety metric in 2014.

The Class I reduced its reportable derailment rate 7 percent to 3.0 versus 3.24 in 2013. The railroad has improved the rate — which is calculated using the number of derailments per million train miles reportable to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) — 38 percent over the past 10 years.

"We invested $4.1 billion in 2014 in our network and operations, enhanced already solid track inspection processes and technology, and broadly deployed creative employee training initiatives to continue our journey to zero derailments," said Bob Grimaila, UP's vice president of safety, security and environment, in a press release.

Employee training improvements had a direct impact on decreasing derailments and enhancing overall safety, UP officials said. For example, the railroad deployed illustrative shoving-move training videos on internal television systems, in training classes and on its Intranet.

UP has spent more than $31 billion over the past 10 years to strengthen its infrastructure, technology and equipment. The Class I now uses lasers and ultrasound technology to identify rail defects; forecasts potential failures by tracking the acoustic vibration on wheels and heat trends on wheel bearings; performs a real-time analysis of every car each time it passes a trackside sensor; and incorporates regular employee participation in rigorous safety training, such as to identify and prevent potential derailments.

Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has issued urgent safety recommendations about electronic alertness devices to the FRA, Association of American Railroads, American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association and American Public Transportation Association based on an ongoing investigation of a UP accident that occurred last year.

The recommendations aim to help ensure that the devices or alerters work as intended on trains. If it has been too long since the locomotive engineer performed an input or action to reset the alerter, visual and audible alerts are activated and the train's brakes are applied. But the NTSB determined that an alerter’s "idle time” reckoning can be reset to zero by inputs that don't necessarily demonstrate a crew member’s continuing engagement.  

"We found that the alerters were acting from automated events as if they had been human inputs," said NTSB Acting Chairman Christopher Hart in a press release.

The NTSB discovered the safety issue as part of its investigation of the 2014 collision of two UP trains in Hoxie, Ark., that resulted in two crew member fatalities and the derailment of 55 cars. An examination of the southbound train’s event recorder found that the horn sequencer reset the electronic alertness device each time the horn blew as if the engineer were commanding each sound manually, preventing the device from providing an alarm to the train crew or activating the brakes.

"Union Pacific Railroad has moved to fix this problem. The FRA needs to require that other railroads understand the problem and fix it where it is necessary,” said Hart.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

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