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Major investigation checks Union Pacific safety

August 27, 1997

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) _ The country’s largest railroad - Union Pacific - will undergo a nationwide safety review following a series of train wrecks that killed 12 people in eight months, the Federal Railroad Administration said Tuesday.

More than 60 inspectors will talk to crew members and the railroad’s more than 900 dispatchers in 10 cities for 10 days. It is the biggest rail safety review ever, the agency said.

``We are not only looking at the dispatchers but also riding the trains to see the operating practices going on with the train crews,″ agency spokesman Dave Bolger said.

``Are they working an inordinate amount of time because of the merger with Southern Pacific?″ Bolger said. ``Are eight people doing the job that 30 people used to do three years ago?″

Union Pacific’s latest accident came on the day of the review’s announcement when 34 cars derailed Tuesday and destroyed a bridge about 60 miles east of San Antonio, Texas. No one was injured.

Bolger said a weeklong inspection in June found 80 percent of dispatcher orders contained at least one error.

``These were basic communication errors, such as giving and confirming directions clearly,″ Bolger said. ``They were not only violating federal rules, but their own Union Pacific rules.″

Union Pacific spokesman John Bromley defended the railroad’s training and said most of the dispatch errors cited were minor.

He said the railroad has been trying to ease stress on dispatchers and denied any problems were related to last year’s purchase of Southern Pacific Railroad.

The safety check started Saturday and involves round-the-clock inspections of the Omaha-based railroad. Union Pacific has 36,000 miles of track stretching west from the Mississippi River.

Dispatchers regularly work 12-hour shifts and are constantly on call. Their job is similar to that of an air traffic controller, coordinating trains along multiple tracks and telling crews when to enter a section of single-line track.

Bromley said the company has tried to give dispatchers regular shifts so they are more familiar with train routes and have consistent days off. Union Pacific has also tried to work with consultants to help night-shift workers improve their performance.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers applauded the safety investigation.

``We think it’s wonderful they are doing this for the interest of the public and their employees,″ said Ed Dubroski, first vice president of the 33,000-member union.

Seven people have died in three Union Pacific crashes in the past three months and five other employees of the railroad were killed in other accidents since January.

In June, four people died in a head-on collision in Devine, Texas. Days later, one crew member was killed and hazardous material spilled in accident near Topeka, Kan. Two engineers were killed Aug. 20 in a collision near Fort Worth, Texas.

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