Federal Railroad Administration Cited Serious Safety Concerns Days Before Union Pacific Explosion

The federal agency that regulates railroad safety in the United States has called the condition of the world's largest fleet of freight cars 'poor.'
Federal Railroad Administration Cited Serious Safety Concerns Days Before Union Pacific Explosion
Smoke rises after an explosion at Union Pacific's Bailey Yard in North Platte, Neb., on Sept. 14, 2023. (Melanie Standiford/Midwest Media via AP)
Alice Giordano
Just days before last week's explosion at what is considered the world's largest rail yard, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) sent a letter to yard owner Union Pacific Corp. citing what it called "serious safety concerns" with the railroad giant's fleet of freight cars, operational standards, and lack of response to known maintenance needs.
In a Sept. 8 letter to Union Pacific (UP), the agency refers to the condition of the Omaha, Nebraska-based company's stock of freight cars at its North Platte, Nebraska, rail yard as "poor" and found that the company was "unwilling or unable to take steps to improve the condition of their equipment."
It accused UP's locomotive director of "blatantly" disregarding the agency's identified safety violations and concluded that the rail company had "not displayed a sense of urgency to improve locomotive and car conditions."
The letter shows that the federal agency, an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation, found that 70 percent of Union Pacific's locomotives and almost 20 percent of its freight cars had safety defects—both twice the national average, the FRA pointed out.
The agency also accuses UP of trying to block the inspection of its North Platte rail yard in Nebraska where the explosion of a rail car on Sept. 14 resulted in an evacuation within a four-mile radius.
"The FRA inspectors received numerous calls from UP managers requesting FRA leave the yard, including the UP MTOs [managers of train operations], the Terminal Superintendent, and multiple car department managers in North Platte," the agency reported. "UP’s General Director for Mechanical called the District Specialist and Deputy Staff Director, requesting FRA to stop inspecting the East Departure Yard."
The shipping container that exploded contained perchloric acid, a primary component in rocket fuel. According to a Harvard University study, it's highly harmful if ingested or inhaled, and can cause severe eye damage and severe skin burns.
According to ACS Strategic Initiatives, the acid is "extremely unstable" and can "decompose explosively or spontaneously combust at ordinary temperatures if mixed with organic compounds."
UP officials told The Epoch Times that "safety is always our first priority" and that it was "reviewing and will address the concerns raised by the FRA," in a written response to inquiries about the FRA letter and the rail car explosion.
The company also pointed out that the evacuation order, under the direction of state safety officials, was listed in less than 24 hours following the explosion and that air quality tests in the area "found no health concerns." 
It said it would be cooperating with federal and state investigations regarding the explosion at the sprawling 2,850-acre Nebraska railyard known as the "Bailey Yard."
The 14,000 rail cars that pass through the hub daily carry freight all over the country, including to the Canadian and Mexican borders.
The explosion and cited safety concerns follow a series of train derailments involving both Union Pacific freight cars and other rail companies. Just two days prior to the Sept. 8 FRA letter, a Union Pacific coal train derailed in Bennett, Colorado. 
Some have caused massive but harmless spills of cargo such as soybean oil, while others have caused heavy environmental contamination, such as the derailment of a Portland-Western Railroad freight car that spilled 2,000 gallons of diesel oil in Toledo, Oregon, in February.
According to the Department of Transportation, about 4.5 million hazardous chemicals are carried across America yearly by rail.
Americans watched in horror in February as heavy clouds of dark smoke engulfed the rural community of East Palestine, Ohio, for days following the derailment of a freight car owned by Norfolk Southern, another major U.S. rail company.
It was soon revealed that the derailed train was carrying several toxic chemicals, including 100,000 gallons of vinyl chloride, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says can cause lethal damage to the nervous and respiratory systems in heavy concentrations.
On Sept. 12, just two days before the North Platte explosion, Simply Wall St published a market analysis of Union Pacific, titled "Institutional investors may adopt severe steps after Union Pacific Corporation's latest 4.3% drop adds to a year's losses." The global online market consultant concluded its review with a warning to potential UP investors that its risk analysis shows that the rail company "has a high level of debt."

The largest shareholder of both Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific is global investment adviser The Vanguard Group.

Just four days earlier in its Sept. 8 letter, the FRA said it learned the company had furloughed 94 locomotive craft employees and 44 carmen. It said the company had explained that the decision was due to "receding volumes and lack of demand for service."
"This begs the question—was UP’s failure to improve the condition of their rolling stock during the FRA’s focused inspection a result of not having the personnel to make the necessary repairs because of the recent furloughs?" the FRA wrote. 
Union Pacific told The Epoch Times that "there is no correlation between recent furloughs and Union Pacific’s ability to address mechanical repairs."
"We have the appropriate staffing for all crafts, and always leave a buffer to allow for the natural ebb and flow nature of our business," the company said. 
Two days before the North Platte explosion, Randy Fannon, national vice president for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, predicted to ProPublica that another devastating rail accident similar to the Ohio one was imminent until UP fixes its safety problems.
“There's no community safe from these defects and dangerous situations," Mr. Fannon was quoted as saying. "UP will have their East Palestine soon unless they correct these issues and return to a normal maintenance program.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Alice Giordano is a freelance reporter for The Epoch Times. She is a former news correspondent for The Boston Globe, Associated Press, and the New England bureau of The New York Times.