April 10, 2006

Railroads strive for fewer crossings collisions

By Nick Carey

OMAHA, Nebraska (Reuters) - Earlier this month, two men
were killed when their truck was hit by a New York, Susquehanna
& Western Railway (NYSW) train at a crossing in Oakland, New

Authorities are still investigating what happened, but
official accident investigation reports say the lights were
working and other vehicles were stopped at the crossing. For
unknown reasons, the truck driver didn't stop.

Incidents like this are becoming less common, U.S.
railroads say, but they are still seeking ways to keep the
public -- the main cause of accidents -- off the rails.

In 2005, there were 3,010 crossing accidents, causing 355
deaths, down from 12,126 collisions and 917 deaths in 1975, the
FRA said. The United States has 240,000 rail crossings.

Railroads cite safety statistics to Wall Street to show how
well run they are.

"It's not the first thing investors look at, but safety
plays a role," said Stephen Brown, an analyst at rating agency
Fitch Ratings. "Few accidents indicate an efficient railroad."

Railway crossing accidents "remain far too high," said U.S.
rail regulator Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) spokesman
Warren Flatau.

The FRA says highway-rail collisions caused more than 90
percent of rail fatalities in 2005, "upward of 90 percent" of
them caused by the people disobeying or ignoring the rules,
Flatau said, "often trying to race trains to crossings."

To keep the public away, the railroads say they are
physically separating rail from road.

Fred Williams, general manager Midwest division for Kansas
City Southern said "wherever possible, we are looking at ways
to move the rails either under or above roads to reduce our
points of contact."

But underpasses and overpasses cost up to $2 million each,
making it "pretty much impossible to remove all crossings,"
said Mark Schulze, vice president for safety at Burlington
Northern Santa Fe Corp., the second largest U.S. railroad. BNSF
has closed 3,000 crossings since 2000, but has more than 30,000
others on its network.

Lance Fritz, a Union Pacific regional vice president, said
accidents at rail crossings "block the network," delaying
deliveries to customers.

U.S. imports have seen annual double-digit growth since
2003, stretching capacity at railroads, which have not suffered
as much as trucking companies from high fuel costs.

"Anything that causes congestion is bad news," Fritz said.

Cameras help railroads investigate causes of congestion,
plus whether a train driver, motorist or faulty equipment are
responsible for accidents.

UP has installed them on 921 locomotives at a cost of
$6,500 each and 2,500 locomotives may eventually get them.
Norfolk Southern Corp. has cameras on 1,300 locomotives with a
target of 2,500. BNSF has 250 cameras and may add 500 in 2006.

Collectively, these three railroads plus CSX Corp. plan to
spend 17 percent more in 2006 than last year on their networks,
including safety programs.

Chuck Wehrmeister, Norfolk Southern vice president for
safety, said cameras have "helped protect against false claims"
from motorists that the railroad caused accidents involving
their vehicles.

The railroads say their primary concern is people and are
reluctant to discuss how accidents hit the bottom line.
Analysts say a series of rail disasters on any one network
would harm a company's reputation and its valuation.

"It is not an issue now because the railroads have a good
safety record," Fitch's Brown said. "If it worsened
significantly the railroads would suffer."

Standard & Poor's analyst Andrew West said U.S. railroads
must also focus on safety to avoid political attention.

"If a railroad has too many accidents making the headlines,
politicians could use that for political gain," West said.

"If safety becomes a political issue, new regulations are
unlikely to follow market principles," he added.

Bob Grimaila, vice president for safety at Union Pacific
Corp., shows a 30-second, black-and-white film -- from a
locomotive in Missouri in January, of straight rails in flat
woodland. A truck appears on the right, speeding toward a rail
crossing marked with the X-shaped "crossbucks" sign common in
rural areas. The truck ignores U.S. highway regulations that
say trains have the right of way.

Train brakes take several seconds to react, and moving at
around 50 miles an hour the train would need a mile to stop.

The train and truck just miss. A few inches closer and the
train would have struck the truck.

"We call that a near-hit," Grimaila said.