Western U.S. Class I railroad Union Pacific expects to respond swiftly to recent remarks by the head of the Federal Railroad Administration that UP has made “poor” efforts to ensure the safety of its rolling stock, including using locomotives with safety defects and being unwilling to address those defects.
UP’s actions are in response to a letter that FRA Administrator Amit Bose sent Friday to UP CEO Jim Vena, President Beth Whited and Executive Vice President of Operations Eric Gehringer on safety defects found during focused inspections in July and August.
The letter also asked whether recent furloughs had any impact on safety at UP.
“I am writing this letter to express serious concern about specific and significant risk to rail safety on the Union Pacific (UP). The compliance of the rolling stock (freight cars and locomotives) on the UP network is poor and UP was unwilling or unable to take steps to improve the condition of their equipment,” the letter said.
UP (NYSE: UNP) told FreightWaves that it takes safety seriously and will respond to FRA this week.
“Union Pacific will never compromise on the safety of our employees. Safety is always our first priority, and we are reviewing and will address the concerns raised by the FRA,” UP said. “There is no correlation between recent furloughs and Union Pacific’s ability to address mechanical repairs. We have the appropriate staffing for all crafts, and always leave a buffer to allow for the natural ebb and flow nature of our business. Finally, we have worked for years with FRA inspectors and respect the work they do. We have the same goal — safety.”
Bose’s letter didn’t elaborate on what prompted the focused inspections, nor did it detail what defects were found during the inspections and whether the defects were major or minor. The letter referred to focused inspections of UP’s mechanical operations and rolling stock that occurred in July and August, but it didn’t elaborate on when and where exactly those inspections occurred other than that the results showed a defect ratio of 19.93% for UP’s freight cars and 72.69% for its locomotives. Those figures are twice the national average, Bose said.
The letter also referred to recent furloughs of 94 locomotive craft employees, including 44 railway carmen, and questioned whether the furloughs were related to the condition of the rolling stock. “This begs the question — was UP’s failure to act to improve the condition of their rolling stock during FRA’s focused inspection a result of not having the personnel to make the necessary repairs, because of the recent furloughs?” Bose said.
The letter did highlight one focused inspection that occurred at UP’s East Departure Yard in North Platte, Nebraska. FRA’s inspectors there determined that the car defect ratio was 22%, and the agency said in the letter that UP managers asked FRA inspectors to leave the yard amid disruptions to UP’s operations because of the inspections.
But “with fewer qualified mechanical inspectors (QMI) to inspect locomotives and cars, FRA expresses a genuine and urgent concern that compliance with Federal Regulations will continue to decline,” Bose said. He also asked UP’s leadership to provide plans of how UP expects to address mechanical safety issues systemwide.
UP has said the furloughs were due to slumping rail volumes and decreases in market demand. UP told FreightWaves Monday that it is also unsure how FRA calculated its defect ratios when other related safety data doesn’t raise flags.
According to FRA, the focused inspections that occurred over the summer were a type of inspection performed routinely. These types of inspections are generally centered on a single discipline, such as track, mechanical equipment, operating practices or signals, and the focused inspections may just hone in on one part of the railroad, such as a specific geographic territory, or it might be systemwide. The focused inspections might be triggered by data trends identified by FRA, such as an increase in defects or violations, and their intent is to assess and bring a railroad into full compliance with FRA regulations.
Receiving copies of Bose’s letter were Surface Transportation Board Chairman Marty Oberman and officials of six railroad unions, including unions with members who were furloughed. Both Oberman and the unions have put pressure on UP in recent years over possible correlations between reductions in employee head count and deteriorating rail service.
FRA and the U.S. Department of Transportation have also been under pressure to take a more proactive stance to bolster rail safety following the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio.
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