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Weekend derailment prompts investigation

MONTGOMERY (AP) — Federal authorities are investigating the railroad company that had a train derailment near Selma this weekend because of its overall safety performance.

The Federal Railroad Administration is looking into Meridian & Bigbee Railroad’s safety operations. The company had more accidents in the first five months this year than for all of the period from 2002-2005.

MNBR had 12 accidents, including seven derailments, by the end of May. A derailment near Myrtlewood on May 2 involved a train carrying parts of the solid rocket booster for NASA’s space shuttle.

In Sunday afternoon’s derailment near Selma, 17 cars left the track.

FRA spokesman Walter Flatau said MNBR is being given special attention, a move that preceded this weekend’s accident.

“We did send a field investigator to look into it,” he said. “We are going to take a look at the safety of that railroad to determine if there is anything they can do to improve their safety performance.”

Flatau said the investigation into the May accident, in which a bridge collapsed under the train carrying NASA parts, is ongoing.

“This just raises more questions about the status of their infrastructure,” he said.

Mike Williams, a spokesman for Genesee and Wyoming, MNBR’s parent company, said Sunday’s accident was caused by a broken rail.

The railroad’s reported accidents started rising at about the same time that Genesee and Wyoming bought MNBR in 2005.

Flatau told the Advertiser some railroads are better about reporting than others, so he couldn’t say whether the increase in MNBR’s accident rate was the result of better reporting or a sign that the railroad is less safe. He said the change could be due to any number of factors.

In 2005, MNBR reported seven accidents, or 47.9 per million train miles. The company reported 21 accidents last year, or 90.8 per million train miles. The 12 accidents in the first part of this year represent 117.6 per million train miles.

The national average is 14.7 accidents per million train miles. For Class III lines, which are those with fewer than 400,000 man hours worked yearly, the rate is 35.9.

Williams said the railroad is safe and is working to become safer.

“It is being upgraded,” he said. “We have spent $10 million since we acquired that railroad, and that work continues.”

He said the increase in accidents has been caused by an increase in traffic.

“A lot of track in the Mobile-to-New Orleans corridor was washed out by (Hurricane) Katrina in 2005,” Williams said. “The M and B became a reroute for a lot of that traffic.”

FRA numbers do show that traffic on the lines increased more than five times from 2003 to last year.

Flatau said that an increased number, or rate, of accidents doesn’t mean a railroad is inherently unsafe. He said most railroad accidents are train-vehicle collisions or accidents at rail yards.

But, according to federal numbers, neither seems to be the case with MNBR, the Advertiser reported.

From 1997-2004, the railroad reported two derailments. It had three in 2005 and 16 last year. Of the 12 accidents in the first five months of this year, seven were derailments.

Train-vehicle accidents have consistently been fairly rare for MNBR trains.

Work continued Monday to clean up the wreckage from a freight train that went off the tracks Sunday in Dallas County, briefly closing roads as authorities worried about hazardous material on the derailed cars.

Dallas County Emergency Management Agency officials and railroad representatives were on the scene shortly after the accident and briefly considered evacuating nearby residents. No evacuation was ordered.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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