Derailed: A Star Tribune Investigation

SPENDING BIG ON SAFETY

BNSF's accident rate dropped 28 percent in the past decade, and collision-related fatalities dropped 42 percent.

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Local police are invited to ride along on BNSF trains as they pass through their communities. Elk River police Capt. Brad Rolfe, left, rode behind conductor Paul Keller.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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The 17-year-old driver was running late for class this fall, so she gunned her black Pontiac to beat the freight train that was going to reach an Elk River railroad crossing before she did.

Minutes later, she was pulled over by one of nine police officers taking part in a safety program sponsored by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. The driver's error cost her a $135 ticket but sent a valuable message that BNSF officials and police hope will stick with her and other motorists for years.

"It may be an inconvenience to be stopped at a crossing, but you don't get a second chance in a collision with a train,'' said Elk River police Capt. Brad Rolfe, who spent a day riding a BNSF locomotive to get a better understanding of the role law enforcement can play in rail safety. "We hope motorists think twice before they try to beat a train.''

In 2009, BNSF conducted more than 50 "Officer on a Train'' exercises throughout the country, including 23 in Minnesota. The enforcement program is affiliated with Operation Lifesaver, a safety program lauded this year by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) for its role in reducing crossing crashes. Operation Lifesaver is funded by the railroad industry, government agencies and highway safety organizations.

Over the past decade, all major freight railroads -- including BNSF -- saw rail crossing deaths decline by 54 percent, federal safety records show.

BNSF said it spends more than $90 million annually on programs related to grade-crossing safety, including an average of $17 million a year to maintain grade-crossing road surfaces.

"We have a very ethical culture, and the needs of our customers and the needs of the communities in which we operate are in the highest priority,'' said John Ambler, BNSF's vice president of corporate relations.

Like other major freight operators in the United States, BNSF has significantly reduced the number of people killed and injured in train accidents over the past decade.

BNSF's accident rate has dropped 28 percent, from 3.6 train accidents per million rail miles in 2000 to 2.6 accidents per million rail miles in 2009, federal records show. In 2009, 38 people were killed in BNSF-related collisions, down from 65 in 2000, a 42 percent drop.

Over the 10 years, 553 people died and 1,695 were injured in accidents at BNSF crossings, federal records show.

BNSF said it deserves much of the credit for that improvement. As part of its investment in safety, the railroad has closed more than 4,600 crossings since 2000, reducing the number of intersections where collisions can occur.

BNSF, the nation's second-largest railroad, said it also spent $40 million to equip locomotives with nose cameras able to document collisions. Since 2004, nearly 4,000 lead locomotives, or about 90 percent of the railroad's fleet, have been equipped with the cameras.

BNSF officials said the cameras can provide an unbiased account of the factors that lead to accidents, helping judges and juries make sense of sometimes-conflicting accounts offered by motorists, train crew members and other eyewitnesses. The video recordings also help accident reconstruction experts find ways to improve rail safety.

"They're very expensive,'' said Charles Shewmake, BNSF vice president and general counsel. "There's a lot of maintenance involved, but we have made a concerted effort to find out what is the truth, what really happens in these grade-crossing accidents.''

While the families of those killed or injured in rail accidents have sometimes accused BNSF of cutting corners on safety, BNSF officials said the railroad has made a significant investment to reduce accidents. Shewmake said the railroad's approach to safety constantly evolves as communities grow near rail lines.

"We'll continue to identify places where we can have better protection than we currently have," Shewmake said.

In August, NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman thanked the railroads and other Operation Lifesaver supporters for what she called "remarkable progress" in the reduction of rail deaths and injuries. BNSF sponsored more than 8,400 Operation Lifesaver classes last year, ranging from driver's education to safety briefings at elementary and junior high schools.

"There was a time when trains were considered a far more dangerous place to work and travel than they are today," Hersman said in her speech.

Staff writer Paul Levy contributed to this report.

  • about this series

  • From Minnesota to California, BNSF Corp. has drawn judicial penalties for misconduct.
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