SALAMANCA - "Someone is going to get killed, because of the theft," Carl P. Belke, Western New York and Pennsylvania Railroad president, told members of the Southern Tier Rail Authority. "The theft of copper wiring from the signal boxes at at-grade crossings creates a safety issue."
It's endemic of a downturn in the economy. As the tide of conditions falls, crimes like theft rise. With the price of some precious metals, those thefts hit areas where those metals are used. Some thieves will hit the wiring in new and abandoned houses. Others will hit rail yards or signal boxes. The latter create a distinct safety concern, according to an official from the rail industry.
The problems come when the boxes are robbed of the switches that control the sensing of oncoming trails. Those switches are the very thing that drop the gates to prevent vehicles from traveling across the tracks. Belke said those boxes will successfully work without the switches, other than the gates not falling.
Modern rail crossing signal houses are designed to have a fail-safe, should power be interrupted to them, he continued. When power is no longer supplied, a battery backup is designed to take over the functionality. That safeguard will stay operational for the life of the batteries, usually about 72 hours, Belke told the members of the Southern Tier Extension Rail Authority. After that period, the signal boxes are designed to no longer hold the gates up, closing the crossing to traffic in both directions.
Not always is it wire switches from crossing signals. The theft is also happening at places like the rail yard in Olean, where several metal plates were recently stolen and taken to a scrap yard. According to New York state law, when a person brings what is suspected to be materials from a railyard to a scrap yard, the owner is required to take pictures of the vehicle that brought the items, get identification from the person trying to sell it, and hold it for a specific period to allow for reclamation of the materials.
On July 6, an event took place north of the border, in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. That incident is a cause for worry in the industry, Belke said.
Belke said emotional responses, leading to legislation, are creating hurdles that are very costly and ineffective for short line owners. The accident in Lac-Megantic, while still under investigation, is thought to lead to such regulation, Belke said.
The unattended, 74-car freight train, carrying crude oil, is suspected to not have been secured for the grade on which it was parked, Belke said. A series of alleged mechanical and thermal situations led to the failure of the restraining system used, allowing the train to travel downhill and into the town of Lac-Megantic, creating an explosion and fires that killed 42 people, with five missing.
"It couldn't happen here, in the United States," Belke said. "We have much different rules than Canada. We have rules on how to secure trains on a grade. Those are non-existent in Canada. To date, there have been no instances of unattended freight trains getting away in the United States.
"I am very concerned that this incident is going to produce emotional laws," Belke continued. "We have single-man crews on our trains. Study after study shows that one man is safer than two, and two are much safer than three. If I have one man on a train, his attention is on what he's doing, not talking to those other guys with him. That's when accidents happen."
Belke said he believes the Lac-Megantic incident could result in mandated crew sizes and regulation that does away with the limited use of remote control that is used in rail yards.
It is believed that the findings of the Canadian Transportation Safety Council will not be ready for six months on the Lac-Megantic situation.