Task force report: Alaska Railroad needs comprehensive safety plan

Posted: Wednesday, November 22, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Alaska Railroad Corp. needs to develop a comprehensive safety program that focuses on preventing accidents, a governor's task force said Tuesday.

''The ARRC does not have an adequate safety program or a comprehensive plan that clearly outlines processes, responsibilities, goals, objectives and measurements for safety,'' the task force report said.

The Alaska Railroad is the only long-haul railroad in the United States that carries passengers, freight and fuel.

The task force, which included commissioners from five Alaska agencies, Division of Emergency Services staff and a railroad consultant, was established by Gov. Tony Knowles in mid-July following several accidents during the past two years, including a 120,000-gallon jet fuel spill near Talkeetna last December. It did not investigate specific accidents.

The commission reviewed safety records and safety training, met with senior management, visited derailment sites and maintenance facilities, and visited the Montana Rail Link, a similar-size railroad that greatly improved its safety record.

''Too much uncertainty exists between department heads about their responsibilities for organizational and personnel safety. Managers and all personnel must make safety their highest priority in every activity, especially in the field,'' the report said.

While the railroad meets standards required by the Federal Railroad Administration, Alaska's unique conditions -- tough terrain, harsh climate and curved track -- require higher standards, said Maj. Gen. Phil Oates, commissioner of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and head of the commission.

The task force recommended:

--Creating a comprehensive safety plan.

--Developing policies on track and equipment maintenance.

--Establishing a safety training division.

--Improving corporate communications.

--Hiring a development consultant.

Railroad President Bill Sheffield said the railroad already has implemented many of the task force's recommendations.

''We agree with all of the report wholeheartedly,'' he said.

Sheffield blamed part of the problem on ''growing pains.'' He said growth of air cargo has led to an increase in fuel transports. Train passengers are expected to increase from 700,000 a year to more than a million in 2004.

''The demands on us are heavier,'' Sheffield said.

He said the railroad has federal money to implement capital projects but often has difficulty spending it. Over the last five years, the railroad has received $242 million and has $170 million remaining, in part because of the cumbersome process of getting projects approved, Sheffield said.

Last week, the railroad qualified for a federal program that will provide a reliable source of funding that eventually will grow to $20 million a year. The funding source will help the railroad develop a long-term strategy, he said.

The railroad is improving its 500 miles of track, Sheffield said. Remote-controlled switches are being installed; about 100,000 railroad ties are being replaced yearly; a snowspreader was purchased this year for $750,000; a vegetation cutter has been rented for $1 million; and tracks with more than a 3-degree curve are being straightened, he said.

''We think we are doing all we can to prevent another derailment,'' Sheffield said. ''We are on top of it. We have either made the changes or are in the process.''

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