Burlington Northern Railroad won’t silence its train whistles until Spokane County provides it with $25 million in liability insurance, county officials said this week.
The purchase of such a policy would allow the county to proceed with a long-awaited four-month test ban of whistles at the University Road crossing in the Valley. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is pushing for the test because it wants to use the results to create federal safety standards for whistle-free crossings. Local residents hope it will lead to permanent bans.
There’s one catch: The insurance would cost the county at least $50,000, said Jim Emacio, county attorney.
Officials from the county and railroad had hoped to resolve the insurance issue by last week. They missed the self-imposed deadline and instead met with the FRA and state Utilities and Transportation Commission, via phone conference, Thursday.
As it now stands, the FRA is considering issuing an order requiring Burlington Northern to silence its whistles for the four-month test ban period. The ban has already been delayed several months by the railroad’s liability concerns.
Burlington Northern, according to county officials, has said it will keep blowing the warning whistles, despite an FRA order, unless the county buys the railroad a $25 million per incident liability policy that includes coverage for environmental damage.
The county’s own insurance broker has advised it to acquire $25 million in coverage for itself if it proceeds with the test ban, Emacio said.
The county would need to buy the policy from one of just a handful of private companies that cover railroads, said Claude Cox, county safety risk manager. Railroads, he said, are considered high-risk. The Washington State Risk Pool, which insures Spokane County, does not provide environmental coverage. Such coverage would apply to environmental pollution in the event of a train wreck.
County officials will discuss the insurance issue with Burlington Northern again on Thursday. They will discuss the proposed FRA order on Sept. 8.
In the end, county commissioners will have to decide, probably next month, if the four-month ban is worth the price.
The alternative would be to wait until the FRA releases its new federal safety standards for whistle-free crossings. These standards will describe, in detail, what safety devices will be required at crossings that don’t use whistles. County officials believe Burlington Northern’s liability concerns will diminish once such standards are in place.
The problem is that the FRA hopes to use the University Road test ban to develop these very standards. Also, if the county decides to wait, that wait could be long. Congress ordered the standards three years ago and the target date of their release continues to be pushed back.
“Burlington Northern is not comfortable proceeding if they incur any additional risk,” Emacio said.
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