Railroads making upgrades to keep freight moving safely

Washington state is home to a crucial segment of the nation’s extensive 140,000-mile freight rail network, which is why the industry is constantly investing in infrastructure, technology and training to improve its already-safe operations in the area.

The Evergreen State is a big piece of the freight rail puzzle, with railroads such as Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific annually moving nearly 50 million tons destined to the state or moving to export through Washington’s ports. Ensuring these goods are moved safely through the region is critical not just for the state’s economy, but for the national economy as well.

While ensuring the protection of communities where railroads operate is the industry’s top priority, railroads are also focused on keeping trains moving without incident to reduce delays for rail customers and the public. For these reasons, the industry is heavily investing in a variety of safety initiatives — in Washington state and throughout the country.

One of those initiatives is extensive emergency response training. While rail incidents involving crude oil or toxic materials are extremely rare, tens of thousands of first responders are trained each year to ensure they are prepared to react quickly and effectively in the event of an accident.

Some of this training takes place at the Security and Emergency Response Training Center (SERTC) in Colorado, where experts train emergency responders from throughout the country in how to deal with rail accidents. In 2015 alone, nearly 2,000 first responders learned how to handle derailments first-hand at SERTC, and more than 800 others received online training.

The industry also conducts many regional training events across the country, and some of these will make their way to the Pacific Northwest. Mike Cook, executive director of Hazardous Materials Compliance and Training at the Transportation Technology Center, Inc., recently wrote:

“Taking the training course on the road — including materials and classroom instruction in a specialized on-site training trailer equipped with valves, protective housings and other training rail props — is a major development, given the time constraints felt by first responders, and it reinforces just how much the freight rail industry is doing to educate and train the firefighters and emergency responders serving rural America.”

Additionally, railroads have invested more than $25 billion annually in recent years toward upgrades and maintenance to rail infrastructure and equipment. As well, this investment includes innovative, groundbreaking technologies that will further improve railroad safety. For example, railroads are developing the use of drones to inspect track and bridges.

Railroads are also hard at work implementing Positive Train Control (PTC) technology on their trains and tracks. Once complete, PTC will help override human error and automatically bring a train to a stop before certain types of accidents occur. By the end of 2016, 63 percent of 22,066 locomotives will be equipped with PTC, and 51 percent of the 114,515 employees requiring training will be PTC-qualified.

Due to sensible public policy that allows the industry to compete and produce revenues it can put back into its network, the freight rail network is one of the safest transportation networks in the entire world. With extensive initiatives and investments aimed at continuously improving on that record, the industry is ensuring it will be an economic driver for the state and country for years to come.

Michael J. Rush is senior vice president of safety and operations for the Association of American Railroads.

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