Unsafe at any speed: workers question locomotive remote controls in Galesburg BNSF yard


By Mike Kroll

Since the end of June the Galesburg yard of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad has been the sight of two well-publicized derailments, one of which involved a tank car loaded with highly flammable propylene. According to BNSF yard employees at least two other yard mishaps have occurred without publicity during the same time span. Every one of these accidents involved movement of locomotives and freight cars within the BNSF yard by remote control. Officially, the remote controls have not been blamed for any of these mishaps and fortunately no one has been reported injured, the only damage has been to BNSF equipment and cargo. But some of the men and woman who work in the BNSF yards are never the less concerned for their safety.

A BNSF job is widely considered a very good job in this area. With the imminent closure of the Maytag plant and the clouds of recession that linger like smog over Galesburg no one wants to risk such a good job but there is a fear that safety within the yard has been compromised by the rapid implementation of the remote control operators (that are replacing engineers in the cabs of yard locomotives) coupled with compromised braking systems and a sprawling and complex classification yard that sits smack in the midst of town.

The remote control units were introduced to the Galesburg operation approximately one year ago as a major cost-savings measure for the BNSF. Just as personnel costs were once slashed by reducing the crews of over the road trains from three down to two years ago this remote control technology permits the railroad to likewise reduce yard crews by a third in number and nearly in half expense-wise. Railroad locomotive engineers are among the highest paid union employees of the BNSF and through the use of the new remote controls nearly all engineer positions within the yard can be eliminated.

All this is possible thanks to a device manufactured by CANAC, Inc.; a Canadian company that developed the remote control belt-packs for use on the Canadian National Railway. While they outwardly resemble a video game controller (and are even referred to as "Nintendos" by the BNSF employees who use them) they are actually extremely sophisticated and expensive devices that cost between $100,000-$135,000 each.

CANAC is extremely proud of these devices and the company’s website (www.canac.com) boasts of both the safety features built into the BeltPack as well at the safety record of use in the hump yards of the Canadian National Railway. These computer controlled devices link to equipment installed on the locomotive itself to enable an operator to move an 80-ton locomotive around the yard without setting foot on the engine itself. The safety features are designed to prohibit speeds in excess of 10 miles per hour and to bring the locomotive to a halt if the operator appears inattentive or trips.

The device itself is remarkably lightweight and enables the BNSF to train an operator (RCO) in just one week to do what engineers take months or even years to master. And this is at the heart of the concern expressed by some BNSF employees, including some of those who are trained RCOs. None wished to have their name used or to even be directly quoted for this story for fear of losing their jobs. It should be noted as well that every trainman I spoke to is incredibly impressed with the BeltPacks themselves and lauded the same safety features that CANAC boasts on their website.

The concern doesn’t seem to be with the devices themselves but with the manner in which they are being implemented by the BNSF. Operating a locomotive is a much more complex task that it might appear. A locomotive engineer doesn’t merely step on the gas to go and the brake to stop as she pulls a train of a hundred or more freight cars totaling tens of thousands of tons in weight. Engineers go through at least a six month training period before they are handed control of a train while RCOs get about 40 hours of training.

Couple that brief training period with the fact that most RCOs are among the newest BNSF employees. These are folks least familiar with how a railroad operates in general and nearly totally naïve about the specifics of the maze-like arrangement of the Galesburg yard. BNSF employees described operating trains in the Galesburg yard as comparable to driving a really, really big truck in a strange city with lots of traffic and no street signs. Simply learning the layout of the yard takes time and experience that many RCOs don’t yet have.

Another common concern is the manner in which the air brakes are configured as trains are made up in the yard. When a regular train travels cross-country each and every car is coupled together physically and with air hoses that enable the near simultaneous use of air brakes on all the wheels. Even then it takes a while to stop a mile-long train weighing thousands of tons. While trains are formed up in the BNSF yard only the initial ten cars have their air brakes connected and operational. None of the cars behind this group have operational brakes making it much more difficult to stop a moving train. Reportedly at least one of the derailments that occurred in recent weeks was due to the inability of the RCO to stop the train in time to avoid the incident. It takes time to properly connect each and every train car’s air brakes to the system and therefore the desire for expediency has led to the present practice.

A final issue raised as a concern by BNSF employees is that lack of experience coupled with the simplified controls of the BeltPack takes away one of the most important sources of information locomotive engineers depend upon when operating a train, touch or feel. For example, a freight train has what is termed "slack" or the slight give and take of the coupling system. An engineer can "feel" changes in the drag of the train as he operates it from the normal controls but all such information is hidden from the user of a BeltPack.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers is the union that represents most of the locomotive engineers working for the BNSF and other railroads across the country. This union has led the fight against remote control of trains for the simple reason that its implementation puts their members out of work. The implementation of the CANAC BeltPacks within the Galesburg yard has reportedly led to the loss of 19 engineer positions in Galesburg. The national BLE even threatened to strike over the issue until a federal judge forbid the action.

It seems clear that with regard to remote control operations the genie is out of the bottle, but as the Federal Railroad Administration continues to revise its rules and regulations for the practice perhaps some of these safety issues will be addressed. The BNSF employees that spoke to me generally have accepted the use of remote controls but are nonetheless concerned that the ever present culture of cost savings at the BNSF may one day lead to a tragedy. While it would be bad enough if that incident led to injury or death for a railroad employee a derailment of a train carrying one of the many hazardous cargos that pass through Galesburg daily could be a community catastrophe.