Remote-controlled train derailment stirs concern, but feds say no worries

| 7/30/2004

Media reports of the derailment earlier this week of a Norfolk Southern train that was being operated by remote control spurred OOIDA members to raise questions about the general safety of such devices.

The derailment Tuesday, July 27, in Alton, IL, occurred when a train partially slipped off the tracks at a rail yard and spilled diesel from its fuel tank, according to media sources and Rudy Husband, a Norfolk Southern spokesperson. The cause of the accident is still being investigated.

Truckers calling and e-mailing OOIDA and Land Line after the incident expressed concerns that trains operated without personnel on board could pose a safety threat to drivers at crossings.

Officials with the Federal Railroad Administration said Friday that those concerns were unfounded because no remote-controlled trains are operating on “main lines.”

Warren Flatau, an FRA spokesman, said that he had been told the likely cause of the Alton incident was not related to a failure of remote-control equipment, but rather a human error.

“There was supposed to be someone basically on lookout,” and there apparently wasn’t, Flatau said.

Flatau said that in response to concerns about remote-control technology and its uses, the FRA started a review last year at the request of Sens. John McCain and Ernest Hollings of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

A final report is due by or before May 2005, but an interim report issued in May of this year found that “deployment of remote-control locomotives in and around rail yards has resulted in significant safety benefits,” said Allan Rutter, former FRA administrator who in recent weeks has been succeeded by Betty Monro.

“The use of (remote-controlled locomotives) is presently restricted to rail-switching operations,” Rutter wrote in a press release in May announcing the findings of the interim report.

“The FRA does not believe the current state of RCL technology and the current level of RCL operator training are sufficient to support the use of RCLs for heavy-haul train operations on the general rail system.”

According to data gathered by the FRA from railroads, the public, municipal governments and other sources for the six months from May 1, 2003, through Nov. 1, 2003, the accident rate for remote-controlled trains was 13.5 percent lower that the rate for conventional switching operations. The employee injury rate for that same time frame was 57.1 percent lower.

Flatau said that traditionally, many of the fatalities associated with trains happen in rail yards and repair facilities, where the use of remote-control technology has been greatly increased in recent years.

“The last two years we have had the lowest number of fatalities in the industry ever recorded,” Flatau said, citing 19 fatalities in 2003 and 20 in 2002.

A number of communities, including Detroit and New Orleans, have banned the use of remote-controlled locomotives. However, Flatau said the federal law generally supersedes local restrictions.

--by Coral Beach, staff writer

Coral Beach can be reached at