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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

BNSF upgrading track, installing computerized safety system across Washington

BNSF Railway is spending $235 million across Washington to upgrade track and roll out a computerized safety system that experts say can prevent devastating train accidents.

The move is expected to help BNSF handle a rebound in train traffic tied to more oil trains originating in North Dakota and a recovering economy.

The bulk of the expansion supports lines in Eastern Washington. Last month, crews completed 17 new miles of double-track rail line between Spokane and Pasco to address “choke points” where cargo movement can stall.

That leads to more efficiency and safe movement, said BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas. “We’re constantly studying additional capacity.”

The company also finished laying new track across Latah Bridge, part of ongoing track replacements from Spokane to Wenatchee.

Next year, the company will also build a second bridge – about two-thirds-of-a-mile long – across Lake Pend Oreille that will give BNSF additional capacity.

“Crossings won’t be tied up as much” in that area, Melonas said.

Track defects, more often than human error, are the cause of derailments, according to data collected by the Federal Railroad Administration. Of those defects, flooding can inflict the most damage, Melonas said, breaking the tracks as it settles and freezes, akin to how potholes form.

In assessing and upgrading track, Melonas said, “the biggest challenge a team will encounter is Mother Nature.”

Aside from track replacement, BNSF continues to install positive train control, or PTC, a congressionally mandated computer safety mechanism that can automatically slow trains that fail to follow speed limits and other complex track signals.

Melonas said BNSF is aiming to meet the deadline of December 2015 but was delayed when the Federal Communications Commission temporarily halted construction of PTC antenna towers.

“We’re hoping to meet it,” Melonas said.

Melonas pointed to the company’s safety record: Not one fatality has resulted from a hazardous material on the company’s Northern Corridor, which encompasses from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Northwest. Melonas also noted derailments on the BNSF line have declined in the last decade by more than half.