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Railroad Switch Safety Demonstration Project Begins Testing


A federally funded test of new technology designed to prevent train accidents in dark, or non-signalled, rail territory by electronically monitoring the position of railroad switches is underway, announced U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta. If successful, the new technology will help reduce accidents like the recent collision involving a hazardous materials release in Graniteville, SC, Mineta added.

“Leaving a switch in the wrong position needlessly puts communities and railroad employees at risk and is simply unacceptable,” Mineta said.

The test involves the installation of wireless communication devices at 49 switches along a 174-mile section of non-signalled BNSF Railway track between Tulsa and Avard, OK. Train dispatchers at an operations center in Fort Worth, TX will monitor the devices to identify when hand-operated switches are set in the wrong position. If a switch is misaligned, the dispatcher directs a train to stop until railroad crews in the field confirm it is safe to proceed.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is contributing $527,308 to the test. BNSF Railway is providing an additional $472,680 for the cost of equipment.

“If successful, this technology will prevent needless accidents and make a large part of the nation’s rail network safer,” said FRA Administrator Joseph H. Boardman.

Approximately 40 percent of all mainline track is located in dark territory and carries only about 20 percent of all rail traffic. Thus far in 2005, there have been nine accidents involving misaligned switches in dark territory resulting in ten fatalities and over 600 injuries.

This project is the latest in a series of actions taken by FRA to improve switch safety in dark territory. In October, an Emergency Order was issued directing railroads to immediately re-instruct employees on how to operate these switches and to communicate whenever a switch is operated. In May, FRA began the process to develop a federal rule addressing proper switch operation. And, in January, FRA distributed a Safety Advisory to railroads recommending ways to improve their switch operating procedures.

The project also fulfills a major element in FRA’s National Rail Safety Action Plan. The Action Plan targets the most frequent, highest risk causes of accidents; better focuses the inspection resources of FRA; and accelerates research efforts that have the potential to mitigate the largest risks.


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