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BNSF has safety on the fast track

Many Detroit Lakes residents rejoiced when Burlington Northern Santa Fe train horns stopped blowing a couple months ago and the city was officially named a Quiet Zone.

But, train engineers aren't necessarily as happy about the new changes.

"That's out of our hands. That's a federal regulation situation. They are the ones that allowed it and developed a process for communities to get it," George Warren said.

But, after being on trains for 30 years, "I know whistles work."

Warren has worked for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad for over 30 years, and now is a teacher for the Operation Lifesaver program, a non-profit national organization.

"I've seen that car come flying along and recognize they're on a intercepting course with a train and start sounding the horn. I've seen people slam on their brakes so hard you'd think they were going to flip over because they weren't paying attention and the horn or whistle actually woke them up," he said.

As a "knee-jerk" reaction, Warren says he's not in favor of Quiet Zones, but it's out of his control, he said, so he'll work with the safety processes instead.

"The engineer always has the option to still sound the horn even in a Quite Zone," he noted.

In fact, if an engineer sees kids playing on the tracks, someone walking on the tracks, or construction workers in the area, it's mandatory for the engineers to blow the horn.

In fact, every time a train is moved -- for instance if it's picking up or moving cars -- the whistle must be sounded to make others aware the train is moving. There are certain signals for those movements.

"I still like the idea of sounding the horn because that's what the public is used to," he said. "If there's a Quiet Zone, it just makes me cautious, but it seems to be working."

BNSF Public Affairs Director Amy McBeth added that the Federal Railroad Administration got involved and installed regulations because states and communities were starting Quiet Zones on their own, and it was causing more deaths.

In the 1980s, Florida made a statewide move to Quiet Zone and grade crossing deaths increased 30 percent the first year, Warren said.

It's expensive to upgrade crossings to qualify for Quiet Zone status, which is why some cities don't go through the process. The cost of median barriers, quadrant gates and legal fees all add up.

The BNSF corridor through Detroit Lakes went quiet on March 16.

It was affordable for the city because many of the crossings were slated to be replaced anyway as part of the Highway 10 realignment project already in motion.

The City spent about $12,700 for consultant services with SRF Consulting. The company provided calculations for exit gate timing and assistance with the preparation of the Notice Intent and Notice of Establishment of the Quiet Zone," Community Development Director Larry Remmen said.

The City's share of the Kris Street Crossing was $125,000. In addition, the city must pay BNSF a $6,000 annual maintenance fee for the signals at Kris Street.

"The costs associated to make other crossings Quiet Zone ready were paid by the State of Minnesota as part of the Highway 10 Realignment Project," he added.

Wayside horns is another option for cities not able to pay for a Quiet Zone. Instead of the train blowing its whistle a quarter of a mile before and after the crossing, there is a directional horn at the crossing that blows. That is also federally regulated.

Since 1995, the number of grade-crossing collisions has decreased 70 percent, McBeth said.

Educating the public and grade crossing closures contribute to those numbers.

"Any time you can close a crossing, that limits the risk there," she said. "Technology, community awareness and law enforcement, combined, have gone into really driving those numbers down, which is really an important piece."

In 1995, BNSF experienced 600 vehicle-train or pedestrian accidents, Warren said. Last year, it was 255.

Education and training

"You don't get on a train without a lot of training, and locomotive engineers have to do federal certification every three years," Warren said. "Every other year, everybody is tested on operational rules and braking procedures. It's an on-going, never-ending training."

Back in 1970, it took 25 years to become a train engineer, he said. It took 10 to 15 years to become a conductor. People started work with BNSF and worked their way up. Now, because of shortages, that time has decreased, but the education hasn't.

In the last 10 years -- with the exception of the last couple years with the economic slump -- with Baby Boomers retiring, BNSF saw a jump in hiring.

"Get a job with the railroad, doesn't matter what department it is," he said of eventually becoming an engineer.

There are regular internal posts about when the company will be putting people through engineer training, and if selected, those employees will go to a community college in Overland Park, Kan.

At the college there is a simulator and students will be in the classroom setting for six weeks. Then they will be in the field training for the next three-four months with crews, learning what the job entails from the professionals.

After that's completed, students will take a test, and if they pass, they will go to work.

"So, there's a process, but it all starts that you have to get your foot in the door, so to speak."

Engineers and conductors are two different positions, although many workers are duel-certified. Most start as conductors and work their way up to engineer.

"The job of the engineer is so important, we don't want him doing anything but thinking about moving and stopping the train." Warren explained. "And that sounds a lot easier than it actually is."

Conductors are in charge of the train, the boss. He tells the engineer, due to what's onboard the train, what the speed of the train will be for that trip.

"They share the duty of safe operations. We don't want the engineer focusing on anything other than operating the train, sounding the horn and doing what it takes for safe train operations," Warren said.

The trains are kept in contact through radio communications with a dispatch center. Detroit Lakes is included in the Staples sub-west territory, which covers from Staples to Dilworth. Staples sub-east covers from Staples to Fridley. A dispatcher controls the train in each section, one for each section.

So if there is an accident, the engineer calls the dispatcher and let him know immediately that he is stopped on the tracks.

Every two miles along the railroad are traffic signal-looking devices, or a block signal. If it's on green, trains keep moving, if it's yellow, trains know to slow down, if it's red, engineers had better be stopping.

Trains are spaced at least two miles apart so they can see the block signals to know if they must slow up or stop.

"Typically we've got to keep them separated enough that in case of an emergency, they can get stopped," he said.

There are also sections of track, like that from Superior, Wis., to Staples, that are called dark territories. The train crew is given orders on how fast they will run their train on that section, and then when that train has gotten from Point A to Point B, another train is allowed to run that section of track.

"It's all controlled by a dispatcher. The dispatcher controls all of the train traffic," he said.

McBeth said the trains also work with the 911 system.

Warren said if there is a crossing -- say in the winter a car slides off the crossing and get stuck in the tracks off to the side -- with something happening on the tracks, people can get out of the vehicle and check the large metal cabinet at the crossing. Each crossing is assigned an identification number and an emergency contact number is listed in the same spot.

Someone who has been in an accident near the tracks can find that number stenciled on the cabinet -- or on the crossbuck's stop sign if at a crossing without the metal box -- and call for help.

"If they give them the identification number of the crossing, they don't have to say the city, the county, the state or anything," he said.

The BNSF computer system will identify the crossing from that number and route the information to dispatcher of that route, who in return can notify the trains in that area.

"Every single crossing has an identification number. Every crossing has information on how to contact the railroad in case of emergency," he said.

(This is the second in a series on train safety.)