Reacting to three freight train crashes that killed seven people in less than two months, U.S. regulatory officials Tuesday announced an unprecedented, around-the-clock inspection of the Union Pacific Railroad.
Federal Railroad Administrator Jolene M. Molitoris said a preliminary review of the collisions - two in Texas and one in Kansas - has unearthed evidence of “critical safety deficiencies” at the nation’s largest railroad.
Officials said over the past year problems have been noted with the Union Pacific’s dispatch, train control, training and hazardous materials handling procedures.
The systemwide probe will concentrate on the railroad’s facilities in Los Angeles; Sacramento, Calif.; Chicago; Denver; Fort Worth, Texas; Houston; San Antonio; Kansas City; Omaha, Neb.; Pocatello, Idaho; and Portland, the FRA said.
Mike Furtney, a spokesman for the railroad, said the Union Pacific “will cooperate fully” with the FRA.
The investigation, which will be carried out by 50 to 60 specially trained inspectors, is part of an ongoing FRA effort to take a more active and visible role in developing and enforcing rail safety regulations.
Accused by the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and other critics of foot-dragging in the past, the FRA has vowed to do better, and Molitoris has said that “aggressive action” would be the hallmark of her term as chief.
The NTSB is conducting its own, separate investigations to determine the probable cause of the three Union Pacific accidents.
The first occurred on June 22, when two freight trains crashed head-on on a stretch of single track about 30 miles west of San Antonio. The collision killed two crewmen and two men who had sneaked a ride on the train. NTSB sources say the accident appears to have been caused by a dispatcher’s failure to tell the northbound train to wait on a siding for the southbound train.
The second crash, on July 2, took place when a train on a siding moved forward into a switch and struck the side of a passing freight train near Delia, Kan. The engineer of the train on the siding was killed. Robert Lauby, the NTSB’s chief rail crash investigator, said crew fatigue may have been a factor in the accident.
The third crash occurred last week near Fort Worth. Lauby said four unmanned locomotives had been parked on a downhill siding, but the hand brake apparently had been set on only one of them. When that brake apparently failed, the locomotives started to roll, coasting onto a main line and eventually reaching speeds of close to 60 mph.
The locomotives rolled undetected for almost 10 miles before slamming head-on into a locomotive pulling a freight train. Two engineers on the freight train were killed.
During the round-the-clock probe, inspectors will ride with train crews, monitor the railroad’s dispatching network and talk to labor representatives, managers and contractors.
A merger last year with the Southern Pacific railroad has made the Union Pacific the largest rail operation in the country, with more than 36,000 miles of track in the western third of the United States.