FOUR people died in June when two Union Pacific freights collided head-on in ’dark territory’ near Devine, Texas. Had it been an isolated incident, it would have been dismissed as a rare but spectacular smash. But this year UP has been struck by an unusual series of accidents, prompting the Federal Railroad Administration to send in 90 safety inspectors for two weeks from August 23. They interviewed crews, union representatives, managers and contractors and observed dispatchers in 10 cities. The verdict was damning. ’You have people who are working seven days a week, 12 plus hours a day with no time off. When you are that tired it makes top performance and safety assurance impossible’, remarked FRA Administrator Jolene Molitoris.

Another derailment in Texas on August 27 did not exactly help, and Molitoris warned on the same day that ’the investigations of the recent collisions on the Union Pacific Railroad have led us to believe there are critical safety deficiencies present at some locations and immediate action across the UP system is necessary.’ She said supervisors were so overloaded with administrative tasks that they were not performing routine safety checks, adding that many problems resulted from last year’s merger with Southern Pacific.

On September 3 UP and the FRA announced a package of measures that included establishing a Safety Hotline allowing staff to call a free number to voice concerns anonymously; a review of all training programmes, monitoring of train crew performance and compliance with rules; and setting up a management group to address on-the-job fatigue.

Releasing its report on September 10, the FRA announced that it was placing an official in UP’s Omaha headquarters to monitor safety - an unprecedented move. It found crews and dispatchers were indeed suffering from stress and fatigue because of excessive overtime. There was evidence of conflicting instructions, and 57% of locos inspected had faults.

UP President Jerry Davis gave a ’personal assurance’ that all problems would be resolved, pointing out that action had already been taken on many of the recommendations. UP will hire 1500 people by the year end to ease the workload, but responding to the SP merger comments, Davis insisted that eliminating administrative jobs did not affect safety. o