Union Pacific boosts rail inspections in high-hazard mountain passes

Repost from The Sacramento Bee
[Editor: See video of reporter Tony Bizjak’s ride on the inspection car here.  – RS]

Union Pacific boosts rail inspections in high-hazard mountain passes

By Tony Bizjak, 10/19/2014
Mike Stoddard oversees the operation of Union Pacific Railroad’s EC-4 as it makes its way out of the Roseville yard on Oct. 6 in Roseville. The EC-4 is a 96-ton, 82-foot-long rolling track inspection car which travels 800-1500 miles a week making sure that heavily used railroad tracks are in good working order.
Mike Stoddard oversees the operation of Union Pacific Railroad’s EC-4 as it makes its way out of the Roseville yard on Oct. 6 in Roseville. The EC-4 is a 96-ton, 82-foot-long rolling track inspection car which travels 800-1500 miles a week making sure that heavily used railroad tracks are in good working order. Randy Pench

Faced with public concern about the risks of crude oil shipments, the Union Pacific railroad last month boosted its rail inspection program on mountain passes in California and the West, dispatching high-tech vehicles with lasers to check tracks for imperfections.

UP officials say they have leased two rail inspection vehicles, called geometry cars, doubling the number of computer-based safety cars in use on the company’s tracks. The move comes amid mounting public concern about hazardous-material shipments, including a growing quantity of highly flammable crude oil from North Dakota being shipped to West Coast refineries.

The inspection cars will supplement similar geometry cars UP owns that it uses to inspect hundreds of miles of tracks daily on the company’s main lines west of the Mississippi River. Running at regular train speeds, the inspection vehicles can detect tiny deviations and wear on rail lines that could cause a derailment if allowed to grow, UP officials said.

The new cars will patrol the main mountain routes into the state, UP officials said. Northern California sites will include Donner Pass, the Feather River Canyon and grades outside Dunsmuir. The state has designated all those areas high hazards for derailments.

In Southern California, the inspection vehicles will patrol UP’s looping line over the Tehachapi Mountains, as well as the line on the Cuesta grade in San Luis Obispo County. The trains also will check mountain rails in Washington, Oregon, Utah and Nevada.

“We’re ensuring we keep crude oil trains on the track,” said David Wickersham, UP’s chief maintenance engineer in the West. “We are going to time it so we are hitting California every three months.”

State rail safety chief Paul King of the California Public Utilities Commission applauded the move. “It’s easy to maintain a straight (flat) railroad, but it’s not as easy to maintain a curved rail like you find in the mountains,” King said.

Grady Cothen, a retired Federal Railroad Administration safety official, said the type of high-tech inspections cars UP is using have become a must for major railroad companies. With more freight moving through limited rail corridors, especially mountains, the financial and political implications of a major derailment that causes damage are huge for railroads.

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