Some freight trains carrying hazardous chemicals through East Texas, are being operated by remote control, as was the case with a Longview derailment last week. Operating trains by remote control is a common procedure by the railroads, but some communities in the United States have outlawed it.
On the surface it appeared to be a minor incident, but Gregg County officials say Monday's derailment just off Eastman Road was a cause for concern. "We have thousands literally thousands of car that come through this city on a weekly basis, and it does concern you when these type of things happen," says Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt.
Officials say the use of remote control devices could have contributed to the accident. "There was a remote control unit involved in that. How it happened, whether human error was involved, I couldn't say. But there is an advantage to using remotes because an operator has a clearer view outside the train," said Union Pacific Railroad spokesman Joe Arbona.
City and county officials were unaware until we informed them, that remotes were being used. Five tank cars and one locomotive derailed, and Longview authorities originally said that no hazardous materials were involved. But there were. Some of the derailed tanks were carrying a highly-flammable, highly-toxic fuel called butenol. Butenol is an alcohol-based fuel harmful if inhaled or absorbed through skin, and affects the central nervous system.
"We are always concerned when we have that type incident because it certainly could have turned out to be a lot worse than it did," said Stoudt.
Because of safety concerns the cities of Shreveport, Baton Rouge and Detroit have all passed laws banning the use of remote control locomotives. And local residents were surprised to hear remotes were used in Longview. "Well, this is my first time hearing it. I hadn't heard that. I don't like. It's scary," said nearby railroad resident Laurina Davis.
Davis worries for aunt, Creella Madison, 95, who would be in serious trouble in case of an evacuation from a derailment. Longview city officials plan to review the remote locomotive practice by Union Pacific over the next week. There was no spill at the recent derailing. Gregg county officials say Union Pacific and other railroads have had an excellent overall safety record in East Texas over the years.