FARGO — A union claims that a test of automated track inspection techniques on BNSF Railway ultimately will mean fewer visual checks of lines in North Dakota and Minnesota, setting up "a game of Russian roulette with the general public’s safety.”

The automated testing initiative involves a suspension of inspection rules by the Federal Railroad Administration and will allow BNSF to make fewer human track inspections.

The testing program, now focused on 1,348 miles of track between Lincoln, Neb., and Donkey Creek, Wyo., that primarily transport coal, has been upheld by a federal appeals court that rejected the union’s legal challenge.

If the automated track testing pilot is successful, the program will expand to track segments that include lines running diagonally across North Dakota, from Minot to Moorhead, and in Minnesota from Dilworth to Minneapolis, according to the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which opposes the automated inspection tests and claims they are unsafe.

Union leaders say they support use of new technology to inspect rail tracks that increases safety. But they are “alarmed that the testing of this new automated system of track inspection could potentially fail because BNSF Railway has reduced the number of visual track inspections that are crucial in catching any errors that the new system makes,” according to a statement to The Forum by David Carroll, the union’s general chairman, and John Mozinski Jr., vice chairman.

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But a BNSF spokeswoman said automated track inspections remain limited to the test route in Nebraska and Wyoming.

“We’re in the middle of the pilot project,” said Amy McBeth, a BNSF public affairs director. “If it’s successful we’ll look to expand it in other areas.”

She added: “We’ve increased the number of inspections using technology, which is bringing us better quality data,” superior to visual inspections. “So, while the number of visual inspections may change, the inspections we’re adding actually provide better inspection data than in many cases the human eye is capable.”

Elsewhere, in rail operations, automation has replaced workers in some instances. Caboose crews, for example, have become obsolete.

The union leaders said BNSF now is using a formula to determine its track inspection schedule, resulting in fewer inspections.

For the route from Minot to Moorhead, for example, BNSF’s inspection frequency has dropped from seven times per week to four times per week and could be reduced further to two times per week, according to the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division.

That segment includes the site of the fiery derailment of oil tanker cars that ruptured and exploded in 2013 near Casselton, N.D.

Similarly, the union said, the visual track inspection schedule for the route from Dilworth to Minneapolis was inspected four times per week, reduced to two times per week.

“While this may be only a test program, it is actually another step in BNSF’s intention to reduce several track safety standards, first from their own rules and now using the test program with the FRA.”

When the test program reaches its final phase, the union officials said, the tracks will only be visually inspected two times over 30 days — the equivalent, they said, “to BNSF playing a game of Russian roulette with the general public’s safety!”

“New technology may supplement visual track inspections, but it cannot replace what a Track Inspector can see and feel when he/she is actually on the tracks,” union leaders Carroll and Mozinski said in their statement to The Forum.

“Because of this, the question to ask is not if a derailment will occur on the railroad tracks, but when a derailment will occur,” they said in the statement.

The tracks through Fargo are inspected four times per week, a frequency that exceeds the requirements of the Federal Railroad Administration, McBeth said. “Safety is paramount for BNSF Railway, for our employees and for the communities where we operate."

BNSF and other railroads are increasingly adopting new technologies to inspect tracks, including cameras, lasers and ultrasound, which can detect flaws not visible to the human eye, she said.

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Technological advances have improved track inspections and rail safety, with the last two years the safest on record for the U.S. railroad industry, she said.

“The safety data show that it’s moving in the right direction,” McBeth added. Safety efforts focus on reducing accidents caused by equipment, track failures and human error, she said. “We know it’s working.”

The pilot project for automated track inspections approved by the Federal Railroad Administration requires BNSF to meet progressively more stringent safety benchmarks over time, the appeals judges found in upholding the initiative.

The appeals court concluded that federal rail officials had a sound rationale for suspending their rules to allow the pilot test project, rejecting the union’s arguments.

“We’ve been working with the FRA for over a year on a pilot program on our route through Wyoming and Nebraska to increase automated inspections using state-of-the-art technologies, in many cases exceeding what the human eye is able to detect,” McBeth said. “To date, key performance metrics judging the success of the pilot have surpassed expectations.”

In 2014, the year after the catastrophic Casselton derailment, federal rail inspectors issued a report citing BNSF for 721 track violations, highlighting problems serious enough to result in potential fines in one of every five inspections going back to 2006.

During that period, federal regulators conducted 3,822 inspections and found 13,141 defects, which were overwhelmingly addressed without fines. Defects were serious enough for fines in 721 instances, 19% of inspections.

The information had been requested by former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.

The North Dakota Public Service Commission created a state rail inspection program in 2015, with one track inspector and one mechanical equipment inspector on staff.

In 2019, state inspectors found 2,299 track defects resulting in 16 violations for all railroads, including BNSF, Canadian Pacific/Soo Line and four small regional railroads, on more than 3,000 miles of track.