The Federal Railroad Administration will issue an order requiring Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad to temporarily silence its train whistles at the Valley’s University Road crossing.
“This is to my knowledge the first order of this type in the country,” said Ron Ries, FRA regional manager. The federal agency hopes the order will reduce the railroad’s liability fears, and its reluctance to participate in an important four-month test ban of train whistles at the crossing. The FRA is pushing the test-ban because it wants to use its results to design federal safety standards for whistle-free railroad crossings, Ries said.
Burlington Northern’s liability concerns have kept the test in limbo for months.
Assistant County Engineer Ross Kelley said the FRA faxed draft copies of the order to the railroad, the county and the state Utilities and Transportation Commission late last week. It orders the railroad to silence whistles at the University Road crossing, except during emergencies or times when work crews are in the area, Kelley said.
All four entities will discuss the order during a phone conference Monday. Kelley said the county hasn’t been told when the temporary order will go into effect. The order is a boost for county officials, who would like to proceed with the planned study of driver behavior at the crossing. The results will help them decide how - and if - they should proceed with plans to silence whistles at other county crossings.
But one big question remains, said County Attorney Jim Emacio: Will the order truly ease Burlington Northern’s liability fears?
If the final order directs railroad employees to use their own judgement to determine when the whistle is necessary, as the current draft does, the railroad may continue to feel vulnerable to potential lawsuits, Emacio said. Despite the order, the railroad may still demand the county purchase costly liability insurance to cover it in such an instance.
This type of liability insurance could cost the county up to $50,000 for the four-month period, Emacio said.
Burlington Northern officials could not be reached for comment.
County officials said they hope to have more answers after Monday’s phone conference.