[Updated below 7/5/16 (6:30 pm)]
by Andrea Hricko
Last week, three railroad workers were killed in Texas when two BNSF locomotives crashed head-on into each other; one other worker was hospitalized but released. Due to heavy smoke, the bodies of the three workers with fatal injuries were unable to be located for many hours/even several days after the crash because of heavy smoke from the ensuing fire.
According to the Wall Street Journal:
“The railroad has said that a new safety technology known as positive train control was slated for installation later this year along the area of track where the crash occurred, something intended to prevent these types of accidents.”
BNSF spokesman Joe Faust was quoted in the press, stating that BNSF is “aggressively” pursuing positive train control (PTC) “across our network.”
PTC, in which GPS and other electronic technology detects trains about to collide and automatically stops them, would have prevented the collision. The U.S. Congress has been calling for PTC since 2008 and initially set a deadline of 2015 for installation on key railroad tracks.
According to a Washington Post account, BNSF apparently has made substantial progress in installing positive control technology on its tracks. Nonetheless, BNSF is said to be a key lobbyist in successfully pushing back the deadlines for requiring PTC, Reuters reported in 2015:
“Last week, under pressure from companies including Buffett’s BNSF Railway Co, which has spent more money lobbying Congress this year than any other railroad, U.S. legislators passed, and President Obama signed, a law that delays the so-called positive train control mandate for at least three years , with the possibility of an additional two-year delay . (NOTE: dates in parentheses added.)
The delayed deadlines come too late for the grieving families. The workers’ names had not been released as of July 5, 2016. But the press has reported the name of one victim so far: Cody Owens, 52, father of three, who is said to have gone to work every day “with a smile on his face.”
2016 has not been a good year for BNSF.
- In May 2016, a federal jury awarded $1.6 million to a former BNSF employee who was fired when he performed safety tests of air brakes even though his supervisors objected. The employee and his family lost their house and had to borrow money during the six years before the whistleblower’s case was heard.
- In May 2016, climate change activists blocked BNSF rail tracks in the state of Washington for several days, disrupting BNSF’s ability to move Bakken crude oil to refineries, as part of protests urging that the U.S. “break free” from dependence on fossil fuels.
- In March 2016, a California judge halted construction of a massive rail yard project to be constructed in the Los Angeles area in close proximity to homes and schools (which had been approved despite intense community, environment and public health opposition), after finding that the project’s environmental impact report (EIR) had major flaws; the judge asked that the EIR be redone.
BNSF is one of the largest freight railroads in America. It is wholly owned by Berkshire-Hathaway, controlled by Warren Buffett.
Andrea Hricko is on the board of the Moving Forward Network, a nationwide coalition of community, environmental justice and public health groups aiming to transform global trade into healthy communities. She is a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California.