Freight rail plays a vital role in our community. Every day, BNSF trains haul grain to our ports, aluminum and steel to our factories, timber products, and containers full of clothes, processed food, TVs, computers, furniture and many other products to consumers in Idaho and across the Pacific Northwest.
We also haul hazardous materials, including chlorine that keeps our water supply safe, ammonia used to make fertilizer and crude oil that is refined to make gasoline for our vehicles, diesel fuel for our trucks, farm and construction equipment and jet fuel for aircraft. We recognize the special responsibility that comes with hauling hazardous materials, and we take additional measures to ensure their safe transport. For us, nothing is more important than safely operating through the communities that we serve.
Freight rail is the safest and most environmentally friendly mode of surface transportation. On average, railroads are four times more fuel efficient than trucks, according to an independent study for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). BNSF’s unrelenting focus on safety is reflected in our excellent safety program and record. We invest billions of dollars each year to continuously improve our operations, infrastructure and safety efforts. The first line of defense is prevention – policies, training, technologies and preventative maintenance – to make sure accidents don’t happen.
We continuously invest in new technologies and infrastructure to reduce risk. BNSF inspects our tracks more frequently than required by the FRA. Most crude oil routes on BNSF are inspected up to four times per week, more than twice the inspection frequency required by the FRA, and our busiest main lines can be inspected daily. BNSF also has special detection technology along key routes on our network sending back thousands of messages daily as they monitor for early signs of potential problems that could cause premature equipment wear or failure. BNSF has also been developing predictive analytics — meaning, we evaluate — the combined information received from the multiple types of detectors to discover potential issues before they arise.
Although we have made progress toward our vision of an accident-free railroad, BNSF recognizes that accidents do happen. That’s why we work closely with emergency responders in communities throughout our service area. BNSF has trained thousands of first responders and sponsored many to attend three-day specialized crude-by-rail trainings in Colorado and at Texas A&M. Together with local emergency response agencies, BNSF has developed response plans and staged specialized equipment and hazmat responders across the rail network.
We are committed to the safety of our communities and their first responders. Last year, we trained upward of 10,000 public emergency responders, including first responders in North Idaho. BNSF has specialized equipment and hazmat responders staged across its network to deal with hazmat and crude oil incidents, including for firefighting and spill cleanup. To serve North Idaho, we have staged resources and equipment in Sandpoint and in Bonners Ferry. We also have response equipment in Missoula, Troy, Libby and Whitefish, Montana; and Everett, Seattle, Vancouver, Longview, Wishram, Bingen, Pasco and Spokane, Wash.
BNSF also develops and maintains highly detailed geographic response plans (GRPs) that identify environmentally sensitive areas, such as Lake Pend Oreille and the Kootenai River, and the priority actions needed to protect these areas. The Lake Pend Oreille plan includes boat launch sites available during drawdowns. BNSF has provided the Lake Pend Oreille GRP to the State of Idaho and to EPA to incorporate into response strategies for all incident types. BNSF also has worked with Bonner and Boundary counties and other agencies on water-incident booming exercises, and we’ll continue to look for opportunities to perform additional exercises and training. For well over a century, BNSF has safely moved goods to and from the Northwest and is proud of our strong ties to North Idaho. Our commitment to preventing accidents contributed to the FRA declaring the last four years the safest for freight rail in U.S. history. This is a legacy we intend to maintain and enhance in the years to come.
Courtney Wallace is the regional director of public affairs for BNSF Railway.