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Published: Monday, 4/24/2006

Study finds no change in rail accidents using remotes

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Use of remote-controlled lo-comotives for rail-yard switching and some industrial deliveries did not significantly change accident rates on most railroads, and reduced injury rates slightly, the Federal Railroad Administration said in a recent report to Congress.

Between Dec. 1, 2003, and Dec. 31, 2004, the industrywide accident rate for remote-controlled trains was 22.42 accidents per million yard-switching miles - 25 percent more than the 17.89 accidents per million miles for yard-switching trains operated by on-board engineers, the agency said.

But the difference occurred "largely because the railroad that historically has had the lowest human-factor train accident rate relies almost exclusively on conventional switching," the report said.

"On those major railroads where [remote-control] technology has been extensively utilized, safety performance has been roughly equivalent to that of conventional switching," FRA administrator Joseph Boardman wrote in a transmittal letter to U.S. Sens. Ted Stevens (R., Alaska) and Daniel K. Inouye (D., Hawaii), the chairman and ranking minority-party member, respectively, of the Senate commerce, science, and transportation committee.

The injury rate for accidents involving remote-controlled equipment was about 20 percent lower than for traditional switching, the agency said, but that could be attributed to the smaller crews - usually two men instead of three - working with remote-controlled equipment.

While the data do not indicate a need to single out remote-control for further regulation, they do indicate a further need to address human error-related accidents throughout railroad operations, the FRA report said.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, a railroad union that has been most critical of the industry's growing use of remote control, had no comment on the report Friday. "Our leaders are analyzing the report and aren't prepared to make a public statement at this time," union spokesman John Bentley said.

Use of remote-controlled locomotives in the Toledo area began in May, 2002, when CSX introduced them for switching at its Stanley Yard in Lake Township. It later expanded their use to nearby Walbridge Yard, and Norfolk Southern uses such equipment in and near its Homestead Yard in Oregon too.

During the FRA's sample period, only two local accidents involving remote-controlled engines were reported to the agency, and neither was blamed on the technology or its operators. A March 5, 2003, derailment in Walbridge Yard was blamed on extremely high wind, while an Oct. 18 Norfolk Southern derailment in the Ironville section of East Toledo was blamed on defective track.

A switching train that derailed two weeks ago in Stanley Yard also had a remote-controlled locomotive. The cause of that accident, in which the derailed cars included several tank loads of flammable methanol, remains under investigation. No one was injured, and no hazardous materials were released.

During the FRA's analysis period, four railroaders died nationwide in yard-switching accidents - two involving remote-controlled locomotives, two involving manned engines.

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.



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