Freight rail is the backbone of the Northwest economy, and for well over a century, Burlington Northern Santa Fe has proudly and safely brought goods to and from Washington. We move the things we use every day — from the food we eat to the clothes we wear to the construction materials used to build our homes.
If there is a demand for a good, more than likely it will come by train. This also includes hazardous materials, such as ammonia used for fertilizers and chlorine needed to treat our drinking water. Recently, there has been a focus on crude oil moving by rail. The majority of the crude oil moving to Washington is headed to local refineries, which make the products we all use every day — gas for our cars and jet fuel that powers our planes.
Safely moving hazardous materials by rail has a long history and a track record of success. The rail industry is the safest way to move anything by land. In fact, BNSF experienced the fewest mainline derailments in its history in 2014, and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) says it was the safest year for the rail industry as well, following 2013, which had been the safest year in history for both BNSF and the rail industry.
Safety is the foundation for our business and our operations. Nothing — absolutely nothing — is more important than operating safely through the communities we serve and the safety of our people. The heart of our safety program is our three-pronged approach: prevention, mitigation and response. Prevention is key as we believe that every accident is preventable. We are continuously investing in new technologies, our infrastructure and resources to reduce risk, making our railroad safer and more efficient.
BNSF inspects its track more frequently than required by the FRA to ensure they are safe. Most key routes on BNSF are inspected up to four times per week, more than twice the inspection frequency required by the FRA, and our busiest main lines can be inspected daily. BNSF also has special detection technology along key routes on our network sending back thousands of messages daily as they monitor for early signs of potential problems that could cause premature equipment wear or failure. Detecting such defects early has improved safety and extended the service life of equipment.
Also, inspections of all bridge structures, including those within Western Washington, are performed a minimum of once a year. BNSF’s bridge inspectors and engineering staff are also supported by consultants and contractors in our efforts to inspect and maintain our bridges. The key to the longevity of any structure is proper maintenance and repair. And railroads, such as BNSF, spend a higher percentage of revenue maintaining, replacing, and expanding its infrastructure than any other industry.
To further mitigate risk, BNSF has committed to working with our customers to transition the oldest tank cars out of crude service more quickly than what is called for in the federal rule.
We also provide free railroad hazmat response training to local emergency responders, and has trained more than 73,000 emergency responders around our network since 1996. In 2014, we trained more than 1,000 people in Washington and Oregon. So far this year, BNSF has held 30 classes in Washington, training more than 800 first responders. Over the last two years, BNSF has sponsored over 260 fire fighters from Washington to attend a three-day crude oil emergency response class at the Security and Emergency Response Center in Pueblo, Colorado.
BNSF has specialized equipment and hazmat responders staged across our network, which includes several locations in Washington such as Everett, Seattle, Longview, Wishram, Pasco and Spokane. Earlier this year, BNSF entered into a mutual aide agreement with area refineries, which formalized a long-standing practice of sharing personnel and resources between the organizations to ensure the highest level of prevention and protection in Washington
This is just a small snapshot of the ongoing efforts to make our railroad the safest and most efficient. Railroading is a way of life — and one that is grounded in safety. Nearly 4,000 BNSF employees proudly call Washington home, and we all have a very strong professional and personal investment to protect our great state.
Jared Wootton is the general manager for BNSF Railway’s Northwest Division.