Report: Railroads Hamper Federal Investigations

Railroads, The New York Times reported July 11, have hampered federal investigations by failing to promptly report fatal crashes. The report immediately sparked criticism from Union Pacific and the Federal Railroad Administration.

“It’s a systemic failure,” James E. Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told The New York Times. “It’s been something that has just not grabbed the attention, unfortunately, of the public.”

The newspaper’s investigation called Union Pacific a “stark example of how 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,” the newspaper reported.

Union Pacific, however, refutes the newspaper’s findings.

“Union Pacific’s policy is clear: We do not destroy information or evidence needed for legal proceedings,” the railroad said in a statement. “In the rare instances when an individual employee intentionally destroyed or altered evidence, the employee was fired. The company also has in place an Ethics Committee to review allegations of misbehavior.”

In a letter to employees after The New York Times published the results of its investigation, Dick Davidson, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Union Pacific
Corporation, admitted the railroad might have been lax in some of its required reporting responsibilities.

“During the course of the reporter’s investigation, we learned that some of our reporting and compliance processes were not as thorough as we expect,” Davidson wrote. “When we learned of these breakdowns in our processes, we took immediate corrective actions. Union Pacific’s policy is to be 100 percent compliant with all of the many regulations that apply to railroads.”

He added: “…In October 2002, we instituted major changes to our processes to ensure that this wider range of materials is kept. Additionally, we will initiate a program to install video cameras on locomotives to ensure accurate recording of crossing incidents.”

In his letter, Davidson contends Union Pacific has a “comprehensive grade crossing safety program.” Included in the program is “system vegetation control, maintenance of grade crossing warnings, inspection and maintenance of track and crossing panels, maintenance of locomotive horns and lights, and training and certification of train crews who operate the trains.”

Like other major railroads, Union Pacific has posted toll free numbers at every grade crossing for motorists to call in case of an emergency, Davidson said.

As a result of these safety programs, grade crossing accidents on Union Pacific declined 84% between 1976 and 2003, the railroad said. At the same time, the railroad contends, the annual number of fatalities from rail-highway incidents on Union Pacific decreased 74% from 261 to 68.

In May, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) said there were a record low number of highway-rail grade crossing fatalities in 2003. The numbers were down 9% from 2002 and roughly 47% since 1994, the FRA said.

In a written response to The New York Times article, the FRA said it has made “highway-rail grade crossing safety a top priority,” adding “it can be considered one of the great success stories in American transportation.”

“To read the recent story in The New York Times, one would think just the opposite of the FRA,” the statement continued. “It was disappointing to learn that after an extensive investigation, the reporter came to the conclusion that the FRA is indifferent to highway-rail crossing accidents. Anyone interested in an unbiased review of the same FRA records and its professionals would have understood the tremendous efforts put into the successful prevention of vehicle-train collisions.”

However, the FRA admitted, The New York Times “highlighted some important issues.” But, the FRA criticized the paper, saying it “missed an opportunity to heighten public awareness of the dangers of ignoring highway-rail crossings, the major source of accidents and fatalities.”

“… The New York Times could have provided a great service to the entire nation if the same amount of time, resources and newspaper ink were used to examine the causes of highway-rail crossing collisions and how best to prevent them,” the FRA’s statement read. “Invaluable information could have been disseminated on the potential hazards to the public when crossing railroad tracks and the extreme caution needed.

“The article could have explained how the public and local officials could join with us in saving the lives which have so tragically been lost. And it is disappointing that it chose to ignore the tremendous and successful efforts the Federal Railroad Administration has put into the prevention of vehicle-train collisions which has been one of the great success stories in the transportation arena.”

Published in the August 2004 edition of The Cross-Tie.