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Rail News: Safety

Union Pacific, AAR respond to NY Times grade crossing safety series


On July 11 and 12, the New York Times published the first two in what the newspaper termed a series of articles alleging that, in many instances, railroads are not properly handling highway-rail grade crossing incidents.

"Some railroads, even as they blame motorists, repeatedly sidestep their own responsibility in grade crossing fatalities. Their actions range from destroying, mishandling or simply losing evidence to not reporting the crashes properly in the first place," according to the Times.

Several railroads are mentioned in the articles, including CSX Transportation, Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Kansas City Southern, but during reporters’ seven-month investigation, Union Pacific Railroad "stands out" for its misconduct as it relates to crossing incidents, according to the Times.

In a letter to employees, UP’s Chief Executive Officer Dick Davidson says that "while much of the articles’ factual information is correct, the tone creates the impression of a company that does not follow the rules."

"That is not the kind of company we are," Davidson wrote.

To read Davidson's complete letter, click here.

During the reporters’ investigation, UP learned of some reporting and compliance processes that weren’t as thorough as they should be, but the Class I "took immediate corrective action," said Davidson. The railroad also found that although it reported incidents to the Federal Railroad Administration, and state and local authorities, UP failed "in several dozen instances" to report fatalities to the National Response Center. The railroad since has changed its procedures to ensure proper notification is made in the future, said Davidson.

However, the railroad does not destroy information or evidence needed for legal proceedings, as the Times alleged, and in October 2002, it instituted changes to ensure a wider range of materials are kept after a crossing accident, said Davidson.

Additionally, UP officials plan to begin a program to install video cameras on locomotives to ensure UP is accurately recording crossing incidents.

The railroad will continue to follow the grade crossing safety program that has been in place for years, which includes system vegetation control, grade crossing warning maintenance, track and crossing panel inspection and maintenance, locomotive horn and light maintenance, and train crew training and certification. UP also has posted an 800- number on all crossings so people can report stalled cars or other safety risks on or near tracks.

In addition, the Class I funds public education campaigns and actively participates in Operation Lifesaver programs, and is working with road authorities and the FRA to close unnecessary public highway/rail grade crossings.

Meanwhile, the Times articles also allege that federal authorities aren’t investigating enough crossing accidents.

"Only federal authorities, not the police, have the authority to investigate thoroughly a railroad’s role in an accident. But of the nearly 3,000 rail crossing accidents last year, federal authorities fully investigated just four," according to the newspaper.

The articles — which have railroads buzzing nationwide — elicited a response from the Association of American Railroads, which says the millions of dollars railroads spend annually to maintain crossing safety is paying off.

"Nothing in that article can obscure the fact that grade crossings have become substantially safer, thanks to the efforts of the nation’s railroads working in concert with federal, state and local officials, highway safety advocates and Operation Lifesaver," according to AAR.

Since 1990, grade crossing fatalities have decreased by 53 percent, and in 2003, railroads recorded fewer grade crossing fatalities than any other year, according to AAR.