It took less than a week for Union Pacific CEO to answer a letter from the Lincoln County Commissioners, listing steps that need to be taken at Bailey Yard before another train car of acid explodes, like the one that spewed toxic fumes into the air in September.

The Sept. 17 explosion caused a five-hour fire and the evacuation of residents who lived downwind. Fortunately, a favorable wind carried the smoke and fumes out of harm’s way.

An investigation began last fall, led by Lincoln County Commissioners Joe Hewgley and Chris Bruns, which found that basic safety measures were not taken. Sirens were not sounded to properly notify employees of the explosion. Investigators found that UPRR didn’t know where the activation switch was or how to sound the sirens. 

Also, UP’s cooperation and collaboration with emergency responders from North Platte was muddled, confused and inadequate.

The commissioners want UP to establish regular training sessions with North Platte police, fire, rescue and law enforcement in handling such an emergency, including identifying a place where the emergency response can be coordinated.

Also, in response to reports that UP’s acid container car was “humped” (rolled into a classification bowl of tracks where it slammed into another car) in Bailey Yard despite a sign on the car that said “Do Not Hump,” the commissioners called for better training of UP employees in the grave dangers of improper handling of hazardous materials.

The commissioners also want an up-to-date map of the roads in 8-mile long yard that spans 2,850 acres, which is the equivalent of four square miles. All responders also must have prompt knowledge of the manifest (contents) of railcars that wreck and/or explode.

The commissioners sent their report to Union Pacific CEO Jim Vena on April 29.

In a reply dated May 2, Vena seemed responsive, but he didn’t promise to take all the recommended steps,

“You highlighted several workplace development, training and process improvement opportunities, which our team looks forward to discussing with you,” Vena wrote. “Union Pacific and the Lincoln County Board are aligned in our shared goal of safeguarding our employees and community members.”

Then he wrote about the size, number and experience of employees, and the integral value of Bailey Yard to the UPRR system.

“North Platte’s Bailey Yard is one of the largest rail yards in North America and a critical part of Union Pacific’s network,” he said. “Its team of nearly 1,400 employees average 18.7 years of experience and safely handle more than 7,400 rail cars daily. The yard is led by 86 operating managers, who also average 18 years of experience.”

“We continue to successfully recruit new operational talent into North Platte, hiring nearly 300 employees over the last two years who are proud to live and work in the community,” his letter said.

“Union Pacific will never compromise safety, and we are committed to ensuring our employees are equipped with the training and tools needed to work safely. In 2023, North Platte averaged 70 hours of training per employee in areas such as train crew safety, engineering track maintenance, and locomotive and car repair.”

Then he wrote about safety, and training to handle emergency disasters.

“We also remain committed to ensuring our communities are trained to respond. While rail remains the safest mode to transport hazardous materials – safely arriving at destination 99.9% of the time – first responders play a critical role if an incident occurs,” the letter said.

“We trained more than 6,400 first responders across our network in 2023, and we look forward to training North Platte first responders later this year,” he said.

Vena said, “Our team is carefully reviewing the points outlined in your letter, and we look forward to meeting with you soon.”

Copies of the county commissioner’s letter as well as Vena’s response have been sent to state and federal regulators — Administrator Amit Bose of the Federal Railroad Administration and Commissioner Kevin Stocker of the Nebraska Public Service Commission.

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