News

UP’s Joe Eichten: Rail safety is always our No. 1 priority

By Joe Eichten. September 1, 2017, Pioneer Press

Freight rail is used every day to transport a wide variety of goods across our country. In Minnesota, trains move agricultural goods from the field to market, haul chemicals that purify drinking water and deliver fertilizers for crops. Everything Minnesotans use every day moves by freight rail at some point, from the food we eat and the vehicles we drive to construction materials to build homes and roads and the electronics we rely on.

The economic impact of freight rail in Minnesota — and the country — cannot be discounted. Freight rail creates and sustains thousands of Minnesota jobs. A study conservatively estimated that freight rail is responsible for at least 7 percent of Minnesota jobs and $40 billion of state GDP.

But, moving all these things safely is always our No. 1 priority. It is in our best interest to protect our employees and the communities our trains travel through, as well as the products we are hauling. That is why the investments we make in safety go above and beyond the already strict state and federal requirements imposed on our industry.

As Union Pacific’s hazardous materials manager in Minnesota, I am part of the front line for railroad safety in our state. UP and the other 19 railroads in Minnesota are all committed to enhancing safety along our routes with improvements to our track and equipment, expanded use of technology and ongoing training for our employees, as well as emergency responders.

Our safety record is unmatched by any other industry.

Railroads are required to move a great deal of hazardous materials and we deliver them safely 99.997 percent of the time. As the economy has picked up in recent years and rail traffic has increased, these have also been the safest years in the history of our industry. Over the last decade, system-wide train derailments have decreased by 25 percent.

Our Hazardous Materials Management (HMM) group is trained in hazardous material transportation safety and response. We are all dedicated to a four-part mission:

  • Prevention: HMM teams perform thousands of tank car inspections, each year. We use the latest technology to regularly inspect our tracks. And our employees participate in rigorous safety training programs to identify and prevent potential derailments.
  • Preparedness: We plan for all types of emergencies and regularly test those plans in drills and exercises. We also provide no-cost training for the emergency responders along our lines, each year. Fire departments learn how to contact the railroad in case of an incident, how to read shipping documentation and what assets the railroad will provide.
  • Response: Like other railroads, Union Pacific operates a 24/7 Response Management Communication Center and we work closely with first responders from the start to finish of any incident along our track.
  • Recovery: Finally, once a situation has been stabilized, we manage recovery efforts, and debrief with local emergency responders. While our goal is zero accidents, we still invest in improving our preparedness and response measures.

Minnesota’s freight railroads recently introduced “AskRail,” a new real-time mobile application developed by the Association of American Railroads exclusively for first responders. AskRail allows them to determine the contents of any railcar and advises on the best safety incident response. With this detailed information at their fingertips, first responders can quickly address nearly any emergency situation.

Rail is a safe and reliable way to move goods across the state and throughout the continent. Those of us working in the industry will keep it this way, because our customers, our employees and the people of Minnesota depend on it.