Investigation reveals major gaps in railroad security

Investigation reveals major gaps in railroad security
There are thousands of miles of track, most of it unguarded. And traveling on them are 10,000-ton trains hauling hundreds of thousands of gallons of hazardous chemicals.

In the wrong hands, there is so much potential for harm. Then why did the Problem Solvers find so many Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway trains for the taking?

"It's just a matter of time. If it's loaded with haz-mat, it's not going to be good," said a long-time BNSF engineer whom KOMO News has chosen to call "Joe." "It's all there to be done."

"Anyone can walk inside those cab," said "John", another long-time BNSF engineer. The Problem Solvers agreed to conceal the identities of both men since they are risking their jobs by coming forward. Both men are deeply concerned about BNSF's long-time practice of leaving running trains unattended.

During several months of investigation, the Problem Solvers made some startling discoveries that raise serious questions about railway security.

At 2 a.m. in the heart of a small Eastern Washington town, a Burlington Northern train rolled to a stop and was left by its crew. There were no security crews present.

The Problem Solvers climbed on board. The locomotive was unlocked, the engine was still running and the key, called a reverser, left inside.

The attached tank cars held sulfuric acid, a powerful corrosive that can burn and release toxic vapors. Yet on this night, the running train sat for six hours, a vulnerable target idling alone just 30 miles from a city of nearly a half million people.

"I hate to say it, but left unattended, running like this, these are a potential weapon of mass destruction," said Bill Jungbauer, a Minnesota attorney who became concerned about the gaps in security through several lawsuits he filed on behalf of injured BNSF workers.

"Terrorists could get this," said Jungbauer. "They could do so much. They could kill so many people."

Burlington Northern engineers say the railway leaves a number of running trains unattended all day and every day across Washington state and the country.

BNSF says the trains are left running to keep air in the compression brake system. But the engineers KOMO News spoke to say the BNSF's long-time practice of leaving locomotives unlocked, running and unguarded is tempting fate.

"This has been a concern for all of the working force for a long time - the safety of these trains," Joe said. "It would be so easy to get one rolling."

The Problem Solvers have chosen to be very selective about the information released in this story; KOMO News does not intend to instruct anyone on how to operate these trains. But BNSF engineers say it's not difficult to get the locomotive moving, particularly since it's the railroad's practice to leave the key - or the reverser - inside the cab so the next crew can find it.

Of serious concern are the unguarded, running trains the Problem Solvers found within miles of the state's major oil refineries. One of these trains was left running, unlocked and unattended in broad daylight.

In both cases, the locomotives were attached to tank cars loaded with flammable liquid petroleum gas.

"It could sit out there for hours. Eight, 10 hours," said engineer John.

"If they were to collide with any other train, or topple or break open, they could kill and maim thousands of people," said Joe.

In all of these cases, the Problem Solvers were able to board the trains and get undercover video without ever seeing any security or railroad police officers. Yet when KOMO News showed the undercover video to Burlington Northern officials, BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said, "How do I know that's an actual reverser?" Melonas refused to believe it had been so easy to board their trains.

"I'd want to know -- is this a legit video?" Melonas said. When the Problem Solvers pushed further to ask what his concerns were after seeing the video, Melonas said, "Who was in the locomotive? Was that actually a reverser?"

Melonas never acknowledged that the Problem Solvers' ability to board running trains might be a security threat. Instead, Melonas assured KOMO News BNSF has ways to stop an intruder from moving these unattended trains.

"We have monitors. We have detectors. We have sensors. We have eyes on the railroad at all times," he said.

But the Problem Solvers never saw any eyes on these running trains that had been left unlocked. And the engineers who pilot them every day insist they could never be stopped fast enough to prevent disaster.

"Manned, these trains could go as far as their destination, or as far until they met another train," said John.

Joe says rail traffic is so heavy on the mainline tracks with freight, haz-mat and passenger trains that "It wouldn't be hard for anyone to move one of these trains in the path of an oncoming train, and not only kill the crew but the community, too."

The Federal Railroad Administration, the agency responsible for oversight, has now opened a formal investigation into what the Problem Solvers found.

"Safety along America's railways is FRA's top priority," wrote agency spokeswoman Brie Sachse.

Jungbauer has confronted Burlington Northern about the lapses in security before, and the Problem Solvers obtained a videotaped deposition from an unrelated lawsuit filed by Jungbauer. In it, Burlington Northern's senior trainmaster Doug Kayser admits the company has never conducted a security test to see if an intruder could get one of these trains moving, even with the brakes applied.

"Management knows about this," said Jungbauer. "Management has been warned about this. And they don't seem to do anything about it."

Even the BNSF spokesman admits a terrorist or intruder could get one of these unattended, running trains moving.

"Nothing is impossible. But it's extremely, highly unlikely," said Melonas.

But the engineers KOMO News spoke to worry tragedy will have to strike before BNSF changes its procedures.

"That is the way it seems to happen," said Joe. "It has to take something really bad to do something that could have been preventative."