UP inaugurates “close call” project

June 17, 2010

Employees at the nation’s largest rail yard, the Union Pacific yard in North Platte, Neb., can now voluntarily and anonymously report “close-call” incidents that could have resulted in an accident, but did not, without fear of sanction or penalty from their employer or the federal government.

The program, initiated at the request of the UTU and BLET, is part of a new rail safety pilot project, FRA Administrator Joseph H. Boardman announced Feb. 2, 2007.

“Having the opportunity to learn about and analyze these close calls will help us identify and correct problems across the industry,” Boardman said, noting that the aviation industry already has a similar program.

FRA currently requires railroads to report a wide range of accidents and incidents that actually occur. The close call information will be studied to determine areas of potential risk and to develop solutions to prevent accidents in the future.

The Confidential Close Call Reporting Pilot Project involves Union Pacific Railroad (UP), the UTU and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET). Each has ratified an agreement with the FRA to allow railroad employees to anonymously contact the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), to report potentially dangerous situations or near misses.

Examples of close calls could be as minor as employees lifting objects that place them at risk for minor injuries, or more serious events, such as a train operating in non-signaled, or dark territory, proceeding beyond its track authority, or a train crew member’s failure to properly test an air brake before leaving a yard, which could lead to a runaway train.

The pilot project at the UP railroad yard in North Platte began Feb. 1, 2007, and FRA plans to extend it in the coming months to other yards, including BNSF Railway in Lincoln, Neb., and Canadian Pacific in Portage, Wis.

Close-call reports will be taken for five years to permit researchers enough time to collect a sufficient number of incidents for thorough analysis.

Importantly, a review team will evaluate the reports as they are received in order to make safety recommendations for those that require immediate attention. FRA is also currently in discussion with commuter railroads to launch a fourth pilot project location.

Boardman said the ‘close call’ project is one of the key elements in FRA’s National Rail Safety Action Plan, a comprehensive effort designed to reduce the causes of train accidents.

The UTU and others in transportation labor also are asking Congress to strengthen employee whistleblower protection nationwide so that rail employees need not fear carrier harassment and intimidation when reporting safety defects or concerns.